We learned last week that Osama bin Laden, whose visage was on many occasions and in many a tabloid declared the definitive “face of evil,” did what he could to uphold his reputation. He dyed his beard. Infamy has its vanities.
I’d argue that he was successful in preserving his image. No thanks to Grecian formula, alleged aphrodisiac syrups, or the mild climate of Abbottabad (much better for the complexion than the caves of Tora Bora, I hear), bin Laden exits history with the same face he had when he entered it. In the world’s collective recognition, a single photo of the washed-up warrior wrapped in a blanket will not replace the few and fleeting images of bin Laden in his glory days.
But here’s the thing—that face, the face of Osama, Public Enemy No. 1; of bin Laden, Wanted Dead or Alive; of the leader of Al Qaeda and scourge of freedom, is simply not a “face of evil.” The man who for years on the lam picked his way through rocky landscapes and smiled peacefully and sat cross-legged among less photogenic followers was a good-looking terrorist.
This is not a wolf-whistle at a dead mass murderer. I’m not endorsing the guy for a centerfold in the hunky sociopath calendar. Nor am I interested in debunking the skin-deep beauty myth. I don’t know how many I speak for when I proclaim the man physically attractive, but I’m sure I speak for many when I say that his image is far too compromised for objective scrutiny.
Let’s try anyway.
Stop projecting. Lose the sailor-style turban, trim the beard. What do you have? Gentle eyes, sculpted bows, full lips, soft voice, a lanky physique, and general aura of calm. On looks alone, the guy was more Rastafari than demonic. Seriously, check out Osama in Jalalabad circa 1988. He looks like the friendly hash-purveyor in a Leon Uris novel. The one you might have flirted with if you were a backpacker.
He was “a very, very lithe, muscular man,” wrote British reporter Robert Fisk. That’s one “very” more than strictly necessary for journalistic clarity.
This of course was during bin Laden’s headstrong-mujahedeen-prince phase, before his turn toward the murderous medieval. But imagine a scenario in which the al Qaeda leader stayed to a middle course. What if he had milked the freedom-fighter and anti-imperialist image but ducked the wanton disregard for innocent life? If he had ridden his white horse, cradled his Kalashnikov, and kept his nails trimmed? Imagine the hearts he might have broken—maidens instead of mothers. Left-of-center gals and guys across America would have been allowed to have a crush on Osama. And that Gael García fellow could have played him in the movies, instead of Che.
Look, I’m not alone here. Bin Laden’s dreamy qualities have been widely remarked upon. Even the Manhattan Institute’s Myron Magnet, a guy who hears “kill the Jews” whenever impassioned Arabic emits from his cabbie’s tape deck, recently noted bin Laden’s “ascetic leanness, his gentle, otherworldly eyes, and almost effeminately delicate gestures.” In short, said Myron, he was “the Tolstoy of jihad.” That’s not bad. Only Tolstoy wasn’t as good-looking. And he had a worse temper.
Another journalist who met with bin Laden in the 20th century was reminded of a cat. He was “a very, very lithe, muscular man,” wrote the British reporter Robert Fisk. Seems to me that’s one “very” more than strictly necessary for journalistic clarity.
But while plenty of commentators have conceded, between the lines, that Osama’s was not a “face of terror,” there has always been a collective agreement that he must in fact embody evil. If we can’t see it in his smile, which refuses to drip blood, or in his “effeminately delicate” hands, which were never seen gnarled, clenched, or snapping heads off babies, we must look elsewhere for evidence of that evil.
Honestly, I’m not sure we ever found it. Outside the confines of Ground Zero, there was no terrifying imagery to link to Osama bin Laden. Compared to Mullah Omar and his Talib thugs, bin Laden looked like a gentle shepherd. Put his picture next to Gwen Stefani and ask any three-year-old child which one is the witch. So how do you vilify a man whose physical image defies villainy?
Apparently you lampoon him. At our most antagonistic, we likened Osama to an unhinged Bert the Muppet.
There’s an old Family Guy episode that imagines the outtakes from bin Laden’s videotaped sermons. He flubs the word “Ramadan” and teases some guy in the corner for bringing in a doctor’s note to excuse him from a suicide bombing. Today, that clip is no less funny for being true. We’ve seen the past-his-prime jihadi and his (soundless) on-camera bloopers. But it was almost easier to make fun of him before we did.
For a decade we’ve talked about this man with murder in his eyes, but we’ve never had an (un-doctored) image to convey it. Now, someone somewhere is in possession of just such a photo.
Because now we have two new images to reckon with. There’s the Osama watching TV, a shadow of his former self and that much less terrifying. More importantly, there’s the image we may never see but seem intent on torturing ourselves over anyway. I’m talking, of course, about the final headshot. The one with the bullet hole.
For a decade we’ve talked about this man with murder in his eyes, but we’ve never had an (un-doctored) image to convey it. Now, someone somewhere is in possession of just such a photo. One in which at least one of those gentle eyes says murder. It’s not the cartoonist version of murder—Photoshopped with satanic red or wearing the black X of death—but the real thing and while we would be looking for it to tell us something about how this man killed thousands of Americans, instead it will tell us about how a handful of Americans killed him.
It’s only now, as I consider the hue and cry to release that photo, that I fully sense the disconnect between how we want to see bin Laden and how bin Laden has made himself seen. Because the iconic images that we put on “Wanted” posters, printed in the newspapers, nursed, doctored, and cursed for a decade, are the only ones we have. And they never fit the part. We’re still waiting for the one that makes sense. The one that shows us the face of evil. The picture of the head of a much-hated corpse is our last and best chance.
Personally, I’m content with the cover illustration of this week’s New Yorker, which better conforms to my mental image of Osama bin Laden. It represents him defaced, erased, rubbed out. But it is an act in progress, not final.
Under the hasty white scrawl of erasure, you can still see the traces of high, clear brows and broad flared nostrils. You can still see the signature features of a man who took down the towers and irrevocably altered our American life. You can still the man who—according to his wife and recorded in the Economist, a magazine not prone to self-deception—loved sunflowers, his children, and yogurt with honey.
Scoff all you like. I can believe it. Osama bin Laden looked to me like a man who appreciated homemade honey. But he relished death to America just as much.
I guess you could say it ruined his looks.