Even before the sudden passing of The World’s Most Wanted Man, I was struck by how many parallels there are between the life and crimes, the individual and cultural pathologies, of George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden.
Both are (or were, in the case of OBL) mass murderers and terrorists, if “terrorism” is defined as the use of violence against civilians to achieve political ends. In OBL’s case, that meant killing non-combatants in the World Trade Center to further Al-Qaeda’s cause. For Bush, that meant killing civilians in Kabul and Baghdad to ensure his reelection as a “wartime President.”
Now, having learned where bin Laden was residing until recently, it’s hard not to look at Bush and recognize that here, too, we have an international terrorist hiding in plain site in a well-guarded compound in an upscale neighborhood of a provincial city located within a country possessing both a prodigious nuclear arsenal and legions of apocalyptic extremists who would happily detonate those weapons in the name of the One True Religion.
But the parallels go beyond these similarities, converging as parallel lines eventually do in a never-ending dance. In the case of OBL and GWB, that would be a dance of death and destruction enacting the darkest, most atavistic impulses of the cultures that spawned the men’s warped egos.
Consider: both Bush and bin Laden were the feckless offspring of wealthy, dysfunctional families that, in the manner of such families everywhere, included individuals whose particular personality disorders actually put them at an advantage for achieving worldly success.
Bush’s grandfather, Prescott, was a successful businessman – also a Nazi sympathizer who could have, absent FDR’s decision to look the other way in the name of national unity, been successfully prosecuted for the capital offense of trading with the enemy in time of war.
GWB’s father, George Herbert Walker Bush, though a classic “man without qualities” quite willing, among other crimes, to participate in treasonous negotiations with the Iranian ayatollahs during the 1980 Presidential election, was an authentic war hero, flying combat missions during World World II. In addition, he displayed real entrepreneurial skill when he broke away from his family’s East Coast roots and headed off to the Texas highlands to compile a tidy fortune digging for oil. As for GWB, well, we all know the story of his bankruptcies and insider trading, his utter failure to make his way without his father’s intervention.
Osama bin Laden was one of the younger of dozens of sons sired by a man who made his fortune catering to the grandiose needs of Saudi Arabia’s dissolute royal family. Like GWB, OBL never showed the old man’s aptitude for wheeling and dealing nor for ingratiating himself to his country’s richest and most powerful factions. In fact, the House of Saud revoked his passport and shipped him off to the Sudan.
OBL and GWB compensated for their shortcomings – their need to show Daddy — in similar ways. Early on both rebelled against the elites to whom they owed everything, embracing chiliastic origin myths about their own societies – myths that, not surprisingly, presented an opportunity for OBL and GWB to be “called” to redeem themselves by committing heroic acts of cultural purification and renewal via mass violence powered by an insatiable thirst for revenge.
In OBL’s case, this compensation led to an embrace of an even more extreme form of the already extremely fundamentalist Wahabi sect of Islam coupled with an ahistorical fantasy about restoring the 8th Century Caliphate.
In Bush’s case, this compensation led to an embrace of an extreme form of fundamentalist/evangelical Christianity coupled with an ahistorical fantasy about restoring the unfettered free market capitalism he and like minded individuals believe prevailed in the early days of the American Republic.
In short, Bush’s view of American history and American exceptionalism is merely the funhouse mirror image of Osama bin Laden’s version of Islamic history and Islamic exceptionalism.
In the end, the two men’s perverse quest for validation led, in the case of Osama bin Laden, to the 3,000 dead of September 11 (and the thousands of others killed by Al-Qaeda over the past two decades) and in the case of Bush to the still-uncounted toll of hundreds of thousands of innocent non-combatants slaughtered in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The main difference between the two, however, is not that bin Laden has, in an extralegal fashion, paid for his crimes while Bush remains at large. No, it’s that in the course of his plunge into nihilistic violence, Osama bin Laden became, for a while at least, an actual warrior, taking up arms against the Soviets, whereas the only time George W. Bush ever placed himself in harm’s way was during the booze and cocaine drenched year he spent AWOL from the Texas Air National Guard.
Still, the parallels far outweigh this difference.
Both Bush and bin Laden were the by-products of ruling elites who live in parasitical relationship to the countries they rule. Both came from social strata that, convinced of their exceptionalism, are governed by a ruthless antinomianism, free to act with impunity, entitled to live beyond good and evil.
Bin Laden has kept his appointment in Samarra. George W. Bush, meanwhile, continues to squander what’s left of his destructive existence, fretting over which invites to accept and which to refuse, fuming over the dismal sales of his ghost-written “autobiography,” frittering away his time in a gated community outside of Dallas, Texas, of all hellish places.
Hard to know which one – GWB or OSL – has suffered the crueler fate.
Image courtesy of Global Grind