Thursday 21 November 2019

Bin Laden's hypocrisy is like our own

The public appetite for salacious scandal has us gripped in an indignant epidemic, says Julia Molony

Did Osama Bin Laden really have a secret pornography stash, or is that morsel of news too good to be true?

Like the suggestion that he used a woman as a human shield, no piece of gossip could be more damaging to Osama's posthumous reputation. To those who revered him, Bin Laden was not a man but the embodiment of an ideal, a beacon of jihadist purity. His moral authority came from a sense of ethical purity.

But now, with this revelation, the suggestion of hypocrisy has intruded into his legend. If Osama was indeed not simply a living emblem but a human being with needs and, like the rest of us, failures of discipline, it makes a mockery of his cause, his arrogant self-declared mandate to pursue his claim to the high moral ground, to the point of death.

The case, if we assume it to be true (and let's face it, it seems pretty plausible) exposes the danger of self-righteousness. It gives the lie to any lingering idea that any person can perfectly embody an ideology. No one, no matter how committed, is consistent enough to do that. The news that Osama may have had a taste for pornography reduces him, amongst those for whom there was any doubt, from a martyr and a freedom fighter to simply a killer. If he couldn't follow through the practice of unimpeachable purity himself, how could he possibly presume to aim to impose it on anyone else?

But before we, in this part of the world, start to feel too smug about this apparent chink in Bin Laden's ideological armour, we ought too to use it as a reason to examine ourselves. There is a lesson in this for the liberal west.

If the strength of our belief and political systems are that they better accommodate people as they really are, rather than what they should be, then that needs to be borne out in our attitude to those who occupy public life. This recently, has become totally bogged in a culture of righteousness and moral crusade. Blame the internet if you will, but we have become collectively gripped in an indignation epidemic.

I'm talking about the sort of rigid rectitude that demands that Tiger Woods make tearful appeals to his fans lest he lose his sponsorship deals, or that punishes politicians for comments they make in private; this culture of schoolmarmish finger-wagging stifles public life and debate. Its basis is almost a fundamentalist one, grounded in the ridiculous expectation that anyone who occupies a prominent role in society or the media must be morally unimpeachable.

Sure, there is an awful lot of genuinely dubious behaviour going on, especially when you glance at all headlines related to pretty much any premier league footballer, and a growing number of Hollywood stars, but what's a little worrying is the way that the public have developed a taste for disgrace that borders on fetish. It's easy to understand our interest in these matters, the irresistible draw to scandal, but must we really all be so self -righteous about it?

Even ordinary people flung against their own will into the public eye are subject to it. A woman, who in moment of madness perhaps, put a cat into a wheelie bin last year was outed on the internet and received death threats. Or, in a more upsetting example, take Kate and Gerry McCann, subject of a public witch-hunt and widespread opprobrium mainly because they made one regrettable mistake.

Since when were the wider public so perfect in their own conduct that they could afford to be so unsparingly judgemental about everybody else? With such puritanical, holier-than-thou expectations, and such a taste for the public shaming of those who transgress, we risk becoming hypocrites ourselves.

Sunday Independent

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