Osama Bin Laden's Man Trouble

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 28 2001 3:00 AM

Osama Bin Laden's Man Trouble

Why his young men in groups are so scary.

An outstanding characteristic of the miserable band of insane worshippers responsible for the savage events of Sept. 11 is that they're all male. Virtually all the fist-shakers we see in news clips of anti-American demonstrations in Pakistan and elsewhere are men, too, usually relatively young ones.

What does this have to do with Sept. 11, Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban, and the future?

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One of the most difficult tasks for any social system is figuring out what to do with its young males. These are invariably the most lurchy, impressionable, energetic, socially exigent, and politically inept members of any group. They cause trouble for their elders and ruthlessly hassle each other. (See the Sharks and Jets of West Side Story and the Bloods and the Crips of the West Coast story.) They pose chronic danger to public order when they drive, drink, and drug.

Various communities cause their young men to endure a startling and often gory array of harassing rituals and trials in order to become acceptable adults. In his autobiography, Nelson Mandela says that only after his circumcision at the age of 15 did he feel ready to assume the chieftaincy he inherited. I have been a so-called expert witness in lawsuits on behalf of young men physically abused by fraternity brothers during hazing and initiations: One was turned into a quadriplegic. Often, only when they have made their bones in some grim initiatory expedition are young men able to contemplate the next steps of courtship and marriage.

The terrorism of Bin Laden harnesses the chaos of young men, uniting the energies of political ardor and sex in a turbulent fuel. The structure of al-Qaida—an all-male enterprise, of course—appears to involve small groups of relatively young men who maintain strong bonds with each other—bonds whose intensity is dramatized and heightened by the secrecy demanded by their missions and the danger of their projects. Like such highly trained and prestigious warriors as the Army's Rangers or the Navy's SEALs, they are screened before they are allowed to earn their stripes in a program of militaristic training in isolated and demanding environments. Selection to the group is prestigious. It confers unquestionable, if radical, Islamic credentials and associates them with the tides of history sketched for them in their training. For many, nothing in the rest of their often sorry existences can compare with the authoritative drama of what they hope to do and with the sense of purpose flowing from their commitment to the leaders they accept.

Their comfort in an all-male world begins with the high sex segregation of many of the Muslim communities from which the terrorists draw. While there are great variations among Islamic communities, the sharp tendency is toward sexually segregated societies. Contact between the sexes is tightly restricted by draconian moral codes. Not only are women's faces veiled, so is their behavior. This means that men and women have relatively little to do with people of the opposite sex. Therefore, they develop a great deal of reliance on those of their own.

Most men in most societies marry, or try to. This is more difficult than usual in polygamous societies in which powerful men may have as many as four wives, leaving three potential husbands without a date for Saturday night—or any night. For example, Osama Bin Laden is thought to have several cave-mates, as many as four, including his most recent bride, a teeny-bopper who's presumably an earnest theological theorist. There are also substantially more men than women in Afghanistan, which augments the deprivations of polygamy. So, some of his troops have no choice but to accustom themselves to relatively monastic lives.

The sexuality and reproductive potential of such young men is not an unimportant matter politically. The United Arab Emirates, not normally considered forerunners of the progressive movement, have taken an inventive action that reflects how difficult it is for men and women to mate in a traditional manner. To marry a local woman, men in that nation must provide gifts, feasts, and ritual performances that may cost as much as $40,000—an impossible accumulation for all but a few. Many would choose a foreign wife instead, which is unattractive to the government. So now when a man marries a local woman, the government supplies a grant sufficient for his ceremonial obligations. Bin Laden and his ilk provide no such marriage benefit. (In a grim reversal, they offer bonuses to the kin of those who commit suicide.) So, his young men have to rely for emotional and social succor on their fellow-marchers to the triumph of grandly effective death.

It is in the crucible of all-male intensity that the bonds of terrorist commitment and self-denial are formed. As they move from Hamburg to Cleveland to Lima to Havana to Jersey City, they are enveloped in tacit camaraderie with their associates who've endured the same training, the same deprivation, the same expectation of enjoying death and heaven in the same shiver. They share the sweet-sour prospect of striking a fiery suicidal blow for the self-evident purity of a religion of love. They are not lonely psychopaths but demented special forces wearing anonymity like a uniform. They share and catalyze swirling energies and religious absolutism, forces immensely useful to those operators such as Bin Laden who are able to turn young men's need for a cool place in the hot sun outward, to other societies, to attack infidels at large.

It's all something grand to do. So much better than the few jobs available, the threadbare economies, the ramshackle societies run either by altogether corrupt cynics, autocratic monarchies feeding princes foie gras, or theocracies that mistake reading ancient books for action.

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