One day, when this war is over, a moment will arrive when the sociologists and media shrinks who are so much part of our normal lives will step forward once again to have their say. Attention will shift from the political and military back to the personal, the word "global" will cease to be an obligatory make-weight for columnists and pundits, and the question will be asked: How, in their hour of darkness, did 21st-century man and woman react and behave?
Already the answer seems to be that many of the peculiarities of contemporary life will be magnified. In the short term there was courage and character. Leaders either increased in stature, went very quiet or (whatever did happen to that man who was meant to be the new Conservative leader?) disappeared altogether. In America, something called "terror sex" became all the rage, public-spirited hostesses began holding "fireman parties" and items of war-related merchandise – mugs, T-shirts, flags, window stickers – made a few people a lot of money.
Yet something stranger, and even more typical of our times, has been creeping up on us. Because the enemy is not a nation or a cause or even a belief system, but is essentially perceived as one rarely-sighted individual, we have begun to focus on him as part of the celebrity culture.
First there were the jokes. Rowan Atkinson may have spoken up for the right of comedians to poke fun at religion, but genuine humour has been a casualty of recent events. Frantic, unfunny quips circulate on the web: photographs of George Bush in a turban have given way to feeble parodies of TV schedules – "Tali-tubbies", "Who Wants to Kill a Millionaire?", "Mr Bean Laden" and so on. Comedy is meant to be a morale-booster in times of conflict, but on this occasion it has been depressing, conveying fear rather than defiance.
More bizarrely, a sort of media personality cult, Osama chic, has emerged. There have been photographs of bin Laden's family. His wealth has been the subject of excited speculation. An enterprising journalist managed to unearth some kind of social connection with Prince Charles. The tone of these pieces is fascinated, star-struck, as if, behind the hectoring and hostility, the culture wants to appropriate the enemy to itself. "He has height, beauty, grace, intelligence and magnetism," wrote John le Carré, commenting on bin Laden's "homoerotic narcissism".
In a respectable Sunday broadsheet, a column headlined "Osama's fatal attraction" revealed that he had become a fantasy figure for Western women. One had fallen for his animal magnetism, another for his beautiful, brooding eyes. The columnist herself, Jenny McCartney, was quick to point out that personally she didn't find the man in the slightest bit attractive. "If you allow yourself to fancy bin Laden, you've got to take on board his penchant for mass murder," she sternly warned her readers, just in case they happened to meet him at a party.
Elsewhere, the Sunday Express journalist Yvonne Ridley was recounting in breathless style how she was captured when travelling through Afghanistan. Her first reaction, when her cover was blown, was to note the gorgeous eyes and features of her Taliban captor.
Even at time when women are admitting that they like their men to be masterful and bossy, as Jane Shilling did in The Spectator not so long ago, the idea that bin Laden and the Taliban are the subject of women's erotic fantasies is a little startling. At times like these one begins to realise how little one understands about the nature of human desire.
Osama chic has been compared to the career trajectory of Che Guevara – revolutionary soldier during his life, sex symbol and fashion accessory after his death – but surely it would the last word in western decadence if bin Laden became Hunk of the Month in women's magazines, a fashion icon of the style pages, subject of Me and My God or Relative Values features in the Sunday papers.
Or perhaps this is the only way we know of dealing with an unseen enemy. We tame him with fame, lessen his power over us by reducing him to the status of celebrity.
How puzzling it would be for him to know that it is not terror, disruption or propaganda that will win the hearts and minds of the infidel. All he has to do is look soulful and bat those beautiful, brooding eyes at a video camera.Reuse content