Friday, December 09, 2005

Young, "Quiet" Osama

A teaser from tomorrow’s Weekend Review in the Notebooks—this about Steve Coll’s new piece in the New Yorker, “Young Osama: How he learned radicalism, and may have seen America.”

Coll won a Pulitzer for “Ghost Wars,” his 700-page history of the CIA, Osama and Afghanistan, but his latest 4,800 words are more of a curiosity-shop item on Osama than revealing reporting. The most interesting nugget is that Osama visited the United States in 1978 with his wife.His young son had a cosmetic medical problem that needed attention. Coll doesn’t say where they went, only that they were stared at in an airport lounge, because of what Osama’s wife wore, and that Osama joked about it later. He also went to London when he was 10 and on a big-game safari in East Africa as a teenager. The son who was taken to the United States for treatment now runs an advertising and PR firm in Jedda, the New York of Saudi Arabia, called “Fame Advertising” (also a PR firm in Australia, but one not connected to the bin Laden son’s firm.) Other silly revelations: Osama “drove a white Chrysler and a gray Mercedes, often very fast,” as a young man. He played soccer and was encouraged to play forward, to take advantage of his height and head balls into the net. His half brothers attended school in Lebanon, but he did not (as has been alleged), nor did he party and disco there (though Coll offers no evidence disproving that he didn’t: it’s pretty much a truism that if you're Saudi, rich and outwardly religious, you use Beirut for its parties, booze and prostitutes).

The article has a sense of gravity that doesn’t hold up. Osama, an only child of a couple that divorced soon after his birth, attended Jedda’s most exclusive private school where British and Irish teachers taught him, along with faculty members culled from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. One of his teachers, an Irishman, goes so far as to use the cliché quote about ax murderers, remembering Osama as “a nice fellow and a good student. There were no problems with him. … He was a quiet lad.” [our italics]. Fine. But then Steve Coll decides to push the seriousness with seriously speculative significance. Osama attended an afterschool Islamic studies session with a Syrian teacher who had his students play soccer and learn the Koran by heart, then learn stories about Islam, some of them pretty violent. The implication is that Osama was terribly influenced by religious extremists. But how are these religio-extremist sessions different from untold numbers of afterschool and Sunday Bible sessions held by ministers or extremists right here in the United States? A fellow-student tells Coll that he remembers the afterschool teacher mesmerizing the group with one story in particular, about a young pious boy whose father wouldn’t let him be a Muslim, so the boy took his father’s gun and shot him, and “Lord be praised—Islam was released in that home,” Coll quotes the former student quoting the teacher as saying. How that story is different from, say, Abraham readying to kill his son to prove his faith to God, go figure. (None of this is meant to justify Osama or explain him away in less indicting terms than reality’s, but to point out the emptiness at the core of Coll’s article). If we’re to draw any sort of conclusions from Osama’s pretty unremarkable youth, the facts reported in this piece don’t help, except to feed into false assumptions and possibly some prejudices merely by dint of creating the impression that Osama was involved in weird, extremist behaviors in his youth. But he wasn’t involved in anything more remarkable than too many young rich and religiously bred, or self-bred, Americans.

One irresistible quote from an Osama fellow-student: “We used to leave our valuables with Osama, because he never cheated. He was sober, serious. He didn’t cheat or copy from others, but he didn’t hide his paper, either, if others wanted to look over his shoulder.” How considerate. And always remember: He was a quiet lad.