Today’s big story: they’ve killed Bin Laden. Let’s assume for clarity we can take today’s reports at face value.
Conclusion: no great loss to the world. But perhaps not such good news as everyone seems to believe. Does he have a following (or potential for one)?
If no, then how is he or his death relevant? To be the bogeyman he’s set up to be implies he had followers.
If yes, then we have a more interesting and more disturbing scenario. Because he has all the hallmarks of a true biblical prophet. Most obviously the prophet Elijah, a similarly absolutist man of God who brought immeasurable suffering on a godless people, incurred the wrath of earthly powers-that-be, and fled into the wilderness. Indeed, “9/11” looks pretty trivial compared to Elijah’s deeds.
We have a lesson from history there: a charismatic maniac of absolutist views and uncompromisingly extreme violence is the very stuff of which religion is made. Elijah is an obvious prototype, but we can find many similarly terrible examples amongst biblical prophets and other heroes (the suicide bomber Samson is another fine role model for modern terrorism).
Now they kill him, and dump the body at sea so there’ll be no shrine. Well, there’s a great biblical precedent for an ignominious death at the hands of one’s enemies. The man who got crucified wasn’t one of the thoroughly evil prophets (though St Paul, who founded a church in his name, certainly was), but that terrible death just became part of a glorious myth. Another lesson of history is that a humiliating death makes a powerful story. And a visit to, for example, Rome’s catacombs, shows the lengths to which adherents of a story will go while they are the world’s repressed underdogs.
Bin Laden acted and looked the part of the true biblical prophet. To follow him is madness, but at the same time no more irrational than to follow the bible. If he had a real following, it’s just been handed what could possibly be the strongest stimulus to a single man since Christ’s crucifixion.
I don’t expect him to have a live cult a generation hence. But I wouldn’t care to bet too much against it, especially after today.