What Drives History

Written on May 4, 2011 by Ángeles Figueroa-Alcorta in International Conflict, Terrorism & Security

By David Brooks


Osama Bin Laden’s mother was about 15 at the time of his birth. Nicknamed “The Slave” inside the family, she was soon discarded and sent off to be married to a middle manager in the Bin Laden construction firm.

Osama revered the father he rarely got to see and adored his mother. As a teenager, he “would lie at her feet and caress her,” a family friend told Steve Coll, for his definitive biography “The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century.”

Like many people who go on to alter history, for good and evil, Bin Laden lost his father when he was about 9. The family patriarch was killed in a plane crash caused by an American pilot in the Saudi province of Asir. (Five of the Sept. 11 hijackers would come from that province. His brother was later killed in a plane crash on American soil.)

Osama was an extremely shy child, Coll writes. He was an outsider in his new family but also the golden goose. His allowance and inheritance was the source of his family’s wealth.

He lived a suburban existence and was sent to an elite school, wearing a blue blazer and being taught by European teachers. As a boy he watched “Bonanza” and became infatuated by another American show called “Fury,” about a troubled orphaned boy who goes off to a ranch and tames wild horses. He was a mediocre student but religiously devout. He made it to university, but didn’t last long. He married his first cousin when she was 14 and went into the family business.

I repeat these personal facts because we have a tendency to see history as driven by deep historical forces. And sometimes it is. But sometimes it is driven by completely inexplicable individuals, who combine qualities you would think could never go together, who lead in ways that violate every rule of leadership, who are able to perpetrate enormous evils even though they themselves seem completely pathetic.

Analysts spend their lives trying to anticipate future threats and understand underlying forces. But nobody could have possibly anticipated Bin Laden’s life and the giant effect it would have. The whole episode makes you despair about making predictions. Read more…

As published in www.nytimes.com on May 2, 2011 (a version of this op-ed appeared in print on May 3, 2011, on page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: What Drives History).


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