Bin Laden's human shields? The myth of his life meets the myth of his death.

Science, technology, and life.
May 4 2011 7:58 AM

The Myth of Bin Laden

The false story of his life meets the false story of his death.

John Brennan and Jay Carney. Click image to expand.

First we hunt you down. Then we blow a hole in your face. Then we dump your body in the sea, where no one can find your grave. Then we destroy the last thing left of you: your reputation.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

This isn't cruelty. It's strategy. Al-Qaida's greatest strength—diffusion—is also its greatest weakness. It's a scattered network held together by the legend of Osama Bin Laden. We took his life. Now we're out to liquidate his legend.

John Brennan, President Obama's counterterrorism coordinator, understands this. Killing Bin Laden was only the first step. The next step is to use his death to demoralize and divide his followers.  "We have a lot better opportunity now that … Bin Laden is out of there to destroy that organization, create fractures within it," Brennan said at a White House briefing Monday. "The number two, Zawahiri, is not charismatic. … You're going to see them start eating themselves from within."

To accelerate this fratricide, Brennan issued a damning account of Bin Laden's behavior during the raid on his compound. "He was engaged in a firefight with those that entered the area of the house he was in," said Brennan. During this shootout, "there was a female who was in fact in the line of fire that reportedly was used … to shield bin Laden." Brennan concluded:

Here is Bin Laden, who has been calling for these attacks, living in this million-dollar-plus compound, living in an area that is far removed from the front, hiding behind women who were put in front of him as a shield.  I think it really just speaks to just how false his narrative has been over the years.

At a Pentagon briefing, a senior defense official told the same story: Bin Laden was "living in a mansion that was eight times the size of any other structure in the neighborhood, living rather comfortably.  He and some other male combatants on the target appeared to use—certainly did use women as shields." A senior intelligence official repeated that Bin Laden "died during a firefight" and that "many of his terrorist associates in other parts of Pakistan and throughout the region are living in much more dire conditions.  So you have to be wondering what they're thinking at this moment when they see that their leader was living, relatively speaking, high on the hog."

Across the Atlantic, British Prime Minister David Cameron echoed this talking point:

The myth of Bin Laden was one of a freedom fighter living in austerity, risking his life for the cause as he moved around in the hills and mountainous caverns of the tribal areas. The reality of Bin Laden was very different: a man who encouraged others to make the ultimate sacrifice while he himself hid in the comfort of a large expensive villa in Pakistan, experiencing none of the hardship he expected his supporters to endure.

But the image of Bin Laden shooting at U.S. commandos from behind an innocent woman also turns out to be a myth. Yesterday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney issued a revised "narrative" of the raid, courtesy of the Defense Department. It says the commandos started "on the first floor of the Bin Laden house and worked their way to the third floor." The people who fired at the commandos died on the first floor. Bin Laden was upstairs and "was not armed."

A reporter asked Carney "which of those women was being used a human shield, as Mr. Brennan suggested yesterday." Carney answered: "The woman I believe you're talking about might have been the one on the first floor who was caught in the crossfire. Whether or not she was being used as a shield or trying to use herself as a shield or simply caught in crossfire is unclear." What's clear is that Bin Laden, who was upstairs, couldn't have used her as a shield.

Carney blamed the misleading early reports on the "fog of war." But a fog of war creates confusion, not a consistent story like the one about the human shield. The reason U.S. officials bought and sold this story is that it fit their larger indictment of Bin Laden. It reinforced the shameful picture of him hiding in a mansion  while sending others to fight and die. It made him look like a coward.

This is the narrative that's really at stake. A narrative isn't just a chronology. It's a tale woven with themes. For 20 years, Bin Laden peddled a tale of oppression and jihad. In elaborate video and audio messages, he depicted al-Qaida's trail of bombings as a Muslim struggle against Western persecution. He wasn't just a terrorist. He was a storyteller.

That's the story Brennan sought to undermine when he cited Bin Laden's use of a human shield to show "how false his narrative has been over the years." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also targeted Bin Laden's story. In a statement trumpeting his death, she argued that "people across the Middle East and North Africa are rejecting the extremist narratives and charting a path of peaceful progress." Carney, too, warned against false interpretations. "It would be a shame," he warned, if Bin Laden's killing "became a piece in a partisan narrative."

Carney is right. So are Brennan, Clinton, and Cameron. Bin Laden was a delusional mass murderer, and his narrative was false. But you can't debunk one false narrative with another. The firefight at Bin Laden's compound, it now appears, pitted two or three men against a dozen or more commandos. Bin Laden didn't engage in the firefight and used no human shield. He wasn't even armed. We shot him dead anyway. That's the truth. Deal with it.

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