What rough beast?

Finally finished “The Looming Tower” and will take it back to the library, overdue [kicks dirt], tomorrow. I’ll be buying it in paperback, once it has “the Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller” emblazoned across the cover. I think the Big P is a foregone conclusion, but I could be wrong.

The book tells, in great detail, the story of al Qaeda, Islamic fundamentalism and, in particular, Osama bin Laden. Chapter 1 has been excerpted widely, the story of Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian fundamentalist generally believed to be the father of Islamism. He was only one of many Muslims to come to America (in the ’40s, sorry Dinesh) and find himself disgusted by what he saw — mostly women, enjoying freedom of all sorts. Oh wait, there was another camel’s nose of leftism in this stew, too:

Qutb was familiar with the Kinsey Report, and referenced it in his later writings to illustrate his view of Americans as little different from beasts — “a reckless, deluded herd that only knows lust and money.” A staggering rate of divorce was to be expected in such a society, since “Every time a husband or wife notices a new sparkling personality, they lunge for it as if it were a new fashion in the world of desires.” The turbulent overtones of his own internal struggles can be heard in his diatribe: “A girl looks at you, appearing as if she were an enchanting nymph or an escaped mermaid, but as she approaches, you sense only the screaming instinct inside her, and you can smell her burning body, not the scent of perfume but flesh, only flesh. Tasty flesh, truly, but flesh nonetheless.”

There you have it, America: The seeds of al Qaeda were planted when some hussy fluttered her eyelashes at this uptight Egyptian. You just never know, do you?

That’s only the appetizer, though. The soul of the book is the twin tales of two fascinating men, John O’Neill and Osama bin Laden. The O’Neill story has been told before, about the singular FBI agent whose train wreck of a personal life did not overshadow the fact he was about the only soul in the FBI who knew just how bad al Qaeda was. He finally left the Bureau in frustration, taking a job as chief of security for the World Trade Center. He started just days before Sept. 11, 2001, the day he died.

Bin Laden’s story was less familiar. I knew the outlines and quite a few facts, but I never got the whole picture until this book, and the picture is pretty banal: Bin Laden is — remains — a rich kid, one of those rich kids whose character is shaped by what he never had to do, that is, go out and earn a living. And so he became a leaf in the wind, an Arab Kennedy cousin of sorts, blown here and there by the whims of whatever caught his fancy at any given moment.

You’ve known these guys; the American version is more likely to be into heroin, or sustainable organic agriculture, or blue-green algae as the health cure doctors don’t want you to know about, but s/he’s as rigid as his al Qaeda brethren are on the subject of jihad. Bin Laden served as the proprietor of the death-to-the-infidel hangout, doling out cash to his entourage the way the American rich kid doles out drugs. He flits from project to project, swanning around Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation with his ragged band of would-be martyrs, hoping to die for Allah. The Afghans thought what you’d imagine, that they were amateurs and pikers, but hey, they all had fat wallets.

In other words, Bin Laden was an overprivileged punk. They’re the dangerous ones.

I learned a lot I either never knew, or knew and forgot. For instance: When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, Bin Laden went to the Saudi king and begged him not to allow the Americans in. He said he — he and his Afghan “veterans,” his hand-picked mujahideen — would protect the oil fields in this holiest of Muslim lands. Really? said the king. And what will you do when he flings some chemical bombs at you?

“We will fight them with faith!” Bin Laden replied. The Saudi king was unimpressed and put his money on Team America. Infidel!

As amusing as this exchange is, it underlines something important: Bin Laden hated Saddam Hussein. Hated his secularism, his hedonism, his un-Islamic showboating. So of course we invaded Iraq.

“The Looming Tower” is a mesmerizing read, but also a depressingly familiar story, about the damage done by people who claim to be acting on behalf of God. When I was doing my journalism fellowship a few years back, two of our overseas fellows were from the Middle East, one Israeli and one Palestinian. Both were extremely secular. At a restaurant one night in Ann Arbor, the waitress arrived at the table with four plates of sandwiches, and delivered them to the wrong people. As we passed them around, I joked that the bacon cheeseburger couldn’t be Adi’s, the Israeli’s — so traife. It’s the sort of joke I make with my Jewish friends all the time, some of whom keep kosher and some of whom don’t, but all capable of smiling at a weak jest about dietary laws. He actually was offended. Why would I assume he was one of those Jews, the observant ones? He really wanted to know; he couldn’t believe I’d even think such a thing about him. It was a reminder that in a part of the world where most of the problems have their roots in religion, that being religious is a political act in and of itself. I guess I’m taking note of the obvious, that Sammy Bin L. has more in common with religious lunatics in this country than he does with an old thrill-rapist like Saddam. But if you really want to see the influence of this country’s God-botherers wane, there’ll have to be a lot more blood on the floor. I guess I’m saying, count your blessings.

Bin Laden turned 50 a couple weeks ago, still presumably alive, still living in something approaching comfort if not total freedom. He got away with 9/11 because we underestimated him. He continues to live as a free man because we continue to do so.


The WashPost gives us a nice profile of Felicia Pearson, aka Snoop, the little assassin on “The Wire.” Like Pearson herself, it’s not what you think it is.

Now I have to go; today is the dog’s annual vet visit and I must collect the vile stool sample. I like our vet. Last year he showed me his photo album of strange animal rescues he’s participated in. (He’s on call for tranquilization and/or euthanization services.) There’s a buck with what looks like a 10-point rack being fished out of Lake St. Clair in the midst of a sailboat race, coyotes and foxes of all sizes and predicaments, and of course the savage feral dogs of Detroit. There are no boring jobs, only boring people.


Posted at 9:40 am in Current events, Television |

8 responses to “What rough beast?”

  1. cce said on March 20, 2007 at 10:51 am

    Thanks for the link to the W.Post and The Wire’s Snoop. That show slays me each and every time. Knowing they’ve got actors with street cred and rap sheets makes it all the more interesting.
    My bro was an ER resident at Hopkins in ’95. Wonder if he tried to save Snoop’s victim?

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  2. brian stouder said on March 20, 2007 at 12:37 pm

    An excellent book; well-written nonfiction generally trumps good fiction (to me) – because of the added facination as you read the narrative that something very like this really happened.

    I was struck by the genuine problem that Sammy continually represented – for basically everybody! – before his bloody cascade of attacks on the US. The Saudis didn’t really know what to do with him, other than to exile him to (was it the Sudan?) – and then he wore out his welcome there, and flitted off to Afghanistan, where Mullah Omar always felt he had to keep one eye on him (forgive me)…

    I was also very taken by just how central Ayman al Zawahiri is to the story. If Sammy is the doe-eyed lost soul, Zawahiri is the Al Pacino-like Satan who ensnares him, and devours his soul. (wasn’t it Zawahiri’s capos that whack one of Omar’s political rivals at just the right moment, so as to endear Sammy to the Taliban?)

    A great book, on many levels

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  3. nancy said on March 20, 2007 at 1:28 pm

    My favorite single anecdote was the Sudanese (I think) compatriot who, when told there was no more money for payroll, went ahead and embezzled some for himself. He was caught and read out by Sammy, after which the embezzler threw himself at the mercy of the Americans, who relocated him to the U.S. for a full debriefing. While living in New Jersey, he won the lottery.


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  4. Dorothy said on March 20, 2007 at 4:02 pm

    Nancy does your vet recommend 6-month wellness visits? I had never heard of that until we moved here. Ticks me off – I’ve had dogs for 27 years and took them faithfully at one year intervals. I’m convinced they only did this to increase their income.

    We had Augie kenneled at our vets’ office this weekend. They told me on Friday that he was due for vaccinations. I said “Give him what he needs.” And then after we picked him up (and paid the $238 bill), I looked in the file at home. We just had him vaccinated and examined 4 months ago!! I called them today and they apologized – said they owe us a refund for the shots and the exam. I was just wondering if anyone else goes to a vet that recommends 6-month visits instead of yearly visits.

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  5. LA mary said on March 20, 2007 at 7:19 pm

    Poor Augie getting shots he didn’t need. I think he’s entitled to one free snarl at the vet next time.

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  6. Dorothy said on March 20, 2007 at 8:13 pm

    I know Mary – and I wasn’t even there to comfort him when it pinched!!! No wonder he’s been giving me dirty looks since we all got home yesterday.

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  7. John said on March 21, 2007 at 7:53 am

    “Qutb was familiar with the Kinsey Report”

    I thought about that last night and was still laughing this morning. Not only is the Kinsey Report full of lies and flung this great country into the sewer, now we can blame the WTC attack on it!

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  8. brian stouder said on March 21, 2007 at 8:59 am

    another way to view the early days of aQ was that many of these fellows were ‘rebels without a cause’. I think Nance is squarely on it when she comments on Sammy as the idle rich boy searching for fulfilment; Qutb provided an anti-establishment rationale (takfir) for people like Sammy….

    Zawahiri is more interesting to me; his motivation seems much more rooted in revenge and power.

    I have read elsewhere that one might view the catastrophic events that opened up the 21st century as the consequences of a power struggle within the Islamic world. Saddam – in his salad days (so to speak) – viewed conflict with the US as a way to gain prestige…if properly managed! ‘Course, he lacked subtlety….and the Shia Iranians spooked the Sunni Saudis (and many others in the region)…and then come the wild-card actors like Sammy and Zawahiri – who saw an opportunity (in our wired age) to appeal directly to the people within the Islamic world with their electrifying attacks on the western nations….which not-coincidentally also spooked all the governments in the Islamic world (secular and theocratic)

    it is worth noting that Sammy and his minions (and his ilk) have slaughtered many, many more muslims than westerners

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