The Reluctant Assassination of Osama

Did Barack Obama want to assassinate Osama bin Laden? He may have at some point, because he gave the ultimate order, or allowed it to happen. But I suspect the president was deeply ambivalent.

It’s not just his postmodern worldview that suggests this reluctance. It is the discombobulated aftermath of the killing, the weirdly botched reportage featuring such events as cabinet members in the situation room supposedly watching a (we learned) non-existent streaming video of the action and the statement that bin Laden -- who had been under surveillance for months from a CIA safe house -- was living in a million dollar mansion.

That was dialed down within a day or two to $250,000 and then revealed, in videos, to be close to a slum. In fact, OBL’s squalid living conditions made the hated Guantanamo seem like the Four Seasons. If the SEALs had taken him alive, it would have been an upgrade.

Indeed, it was those SEALs that were the only ones who performed their part with professionalism. Everything else seemed ad hoc, as if thrown together at the last moment after, one guesses, various parties finally convinced, or even forced, the president to act. There was no preparation for the aftermath, no apparent plan of how to inform or not inform the public of this cataclysmic event when such a decision was in many ways as important as the action itself. What resulted was an embarrassing blabbermouth display of public contradiction. Some of this can be justified by the fog of war, but not to the extent we saw. Something more was at work and I think it was a reluctant president.

(Compare the aftermath of this enterprise to last year’s putative Mossad assassination of an Hamas leader in Dubai. The Israelis were absolutely silent, as they almost always are, about their actions. Could the US have done the same about the bin Laden assassination? Not entirely. The conditions are different. But a certain amount of judicious silence until the facts were known would have been a vast improvement. )

Still, Osama is dead. Huzzah.

And we get to see something of who or what he was. It’s a strange case. On one level his absurdly bad dye job on several of the videos -- not to mention the one with the now grey-bearded Al Qaeda chieftain channel-surfing himself on television -- is hysterically funny. It makes him look like some cheesy huckster from the far reaches of the cable listings.

On another level, however, the videos are blood-curdling, revealing a bizarre sociopath lost in his own weird narcissistic world.

Bin Laden was an odd bird indeed, but odd in the sense that serial killers and mass murderers are odd, trapped in their own paranoid universes, not unlike Charles Manson, who lived under similar conditions at the Spahn Ranch.

And just like Manson, Osama was able to attract acolytes. Unfortunately, however, in the case of the Saudi, those acolytes were exponentially more powerful and numerous, including, evidently, a significant portion of the Pakistani intelligence service and military. Indeed, he still undoubtedly has millions, even hundreds of millions of acolytes.