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​What Osama bin Laden's Book Shelf Tells Us About the War for Our Minds

America wants to turn Osama bin Laden from a vague avatar of Evil into a human being.

by Sam Kriss
22 May 2015, 5:00am

Osama bin Laden, formerly the world's rudest architecture critic, now either (depending on who you believe) feeding the dumb gulping creatures of the deep or having his skull put to use as Barack Obama's grisly personal wine-cup, has now also become the latest global figure to take part in the celebrity shelfie craze.

On Wednesday, the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a list of all the books and letters found in bin Laden's compound in the garrison town of Abbottobad. Of course, they stress, this has absolutely nothing to do with investigative journalist Seymour Hersh's recent 10,000 word expose in the London Review of Books, which tore the bloated Lovecraftian mess of lies and contradictions that was the official story of the bin Laden raid to ribbons. It's certainly not an attempt to prove that the "treasure trove" of intelligence collected in the raid, whose existence Hersh flatly denies, was totally a real thing. It's just a response to "the President's call for increased transparency".

But even if you do choose to believe all this, if you accept that Islamabad had no idea the world's most wanted terrorist was living quietly in the Pakistani equivalent of a suburban semi-detached house in Sandhurst, releasing these documents is still a deeply weird move.

If Osama bin Laden had just bought a Kindle, he could have kept all his books in one handy, lightweight container. The problem with e-readers, though, is that they don't let you show off what you're reading on public transport. This is why people post photos of their bookshelves online: they want to be liked. This is why supermodels let the open pages of Murakami's latest creep into shot as they Instagram their salads: because it lets their audience know that they are more than a glorified cress-eating coat-hanger. This is why nervous young lads carefully crack the spines of Deleuze and Guattari's Capitalism and Schizophrenia before a Netflix-and-pizza date: because they want to impress.

Showing off your books is a desperate, lonely cry: "Love me! Please, love me! I've read Ulysses! I have worth!" Books humanise people in a way that football flags and DVDs never could: every book is a little wound in a person's shell, letting a tiny trickle of vulnerable interiority trickle through.

How, then, should we process the fact that among bin Laden's possessions was a strategy guide for a video game called Delta Force Xtreme 2? Is this just another attempt to manipulate public opinion by American intelligence – not only was bin Laden a murderous jihadist, he was also a gamergating dudebro manchild? Or should we imagine that tall, skinny, weird old monster, prisoner in his compound, with nothing left to live for, endlessly replaying his own inevitable death as he commands his pixellated enemies onscreen, feeling the vicarious giddy rush of American cultural invincibility?

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What about the revelation that he was reading texts by 9/11 truthers? Or a book called Bloodlines of the Illuminati , another alleging CIA involvement in the JFK assassination, and another on the occult secrets of the Federal Reserve commissioned by the great Modernist poet and virulent fascist anti-Semite Ezra Pound? Was this an etiolated loner, slamming shutters against the sunshine, the Jews, the Molochs, feeling the walls creep in closer, convinced in the madness of his final days that some ancient cabal had set him up? Was he offended by how the Americans tried to steal his greatest work and claim it for their own government? Or the collection of "materials regarding France", including a report on income inequality in the country, or the "profiles of bishops in the Church of England"? Maybe bin Laden was considering packing it all in and becoming a student of Thomas Piketty or a nice tea-sipping vicar somewhere in Oxfordshire.

"If you go home with somebody, and they don't have books ," John Waters commanded us, "don't fuck them". He never really specified which books in particular; apparently someone with shelves full of comics and turgid rape-n-bloodshed fantasy epics is officially cultured enough to procreate. By this measure, Osama bin Laden is also eminently fuckable. This despite the fact that unless you count the conspiracy texts, there's a total lack of any literary fiction. Time was when our villains were cultured; even now you can tell who the baddie is in a film from the way they pretend to like Bach and misquote Turgenev.

Times change. If there's a dominant cultural mode now, by sheer volume alone it's probably porn. When pornography was allegedly found in the Abbottabad compound, this was treated like some kind of victory, as if Western capitalism had invented wanking. What we did invent was a very particular type of porn, one which encompasses the release of bin Laden's bookshelf.

Revealing his reading habits turns Osama bin Laden from a vaguely defined avatar of Evil into a human being. Knowing what he did, this is an uncomfortable transformation, and that's the whole point. The intelligence community wants you to know that this was a man, and they killed him.

Only 18 months passed between the raid on the compound and the release of Zero Dark Thirty, a slickly produced piece of torture-porn propaganda mythologising its events. We haven't really moved past the days when dead Native American leaders were posed and photographed after the massacre. This is what the civilised nations do now: we will kill you, and then let the world gawp over your porn stash and your reading materials. We will kill you, and then make a film about it, so that your image dies over and over again on thousands of screens, and as you die people will be getting hand-jobs in the back row of the cinema.

@sam_kriss

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