05/25/2011 12:15 pm ET | Updated Jul 25, 2011

There's No Such Thing As Osama Bin Laden

It was a sunny summer afternoon in 2004, and Clover, our two kids, and I were people-watching from an outdoor café in the charming city of Gröningen, the Netherlands. An older man with a long, white, natty beard and a shabby coat to match was moving from table to table, asking for change. As he approached us, Clover and I were surprised to see our nine-year-old son, Seth, grow increasingly tense. He's usually the one in the family with the most compassion and interest in strangers, especially those who appear down on their luck. Yet as the poor man drew near, Seth looked down and away with a wary scowl. Clover dropped a couple Euros into the man's open hand and he moved on. Seth relaxed back into his Orangina.

"Seth, you seemed really upset by that man. What's going on?" Clover asked.

"Sometimes when I see someone who looks like that," he confided in a hushed voice, "I'm afraid maybe it's him."


"You know, him, the one who blew up the towers."

"You mean Osama bin Laden?" He nodded seriously, tearing up a little.

For Seth, as for so many of us, bin Laden had already become something more than a mortal. He was omnipresent, and might show up anywhere in the world at any given moment. He was omniscient, too, an unknown knower and unseen seer who watched all our every moves. He knew when and where we'd be most vulnerable, and seemed to be laughing at the hysterical security theater of amber squares and x-rayed shoes that he'd driven us to act out, at great expense, to ward off his evil. Already in 2004, and indeed long before then, we had turned Osama bin Laden into a mysterious, powerful, supernatural monster.

And so he will rise again from the dead. Not because the Navy Seals didn't kill him certainly enough. Every doubter in the world could put a finger in his wounds till there was no hesitation in declaring him undeniably and reliably dead. Even still, he'd be back. Because we have turned him into a monster, and monsters don't stay dead.

Monsters put a face on our otherwise vague sense of impending doom. The typical Hollywood monster movie serves as a vehicle for a public rite of exorcism in which our looming sense of unease is projected in the form of a monster and then blown away. Although there will be some collateral damage before the battle is over, in the end the monster will be vanquished and the nation will be safe once again. In this way such monster movies literally scare the hell out of us. And in an insecure time such as this one, they give us a sense of closure. At least for a while. And therein lies the downside: "The End" of the monster tale always implies a question mark.

I regularly teach a college course called "Religion and Horror," based on my book, "Religion and Its Monsters," which happened to come out a couple months after 9/11. The idea of the course is to see what we might discover about religion by getting to know its monsters, and to see what we might discover about nowaday monsters by getting to know their religious backgrounds. In other words, we explore religion as horror and horror as religion.

One thing we discover is that there is a slippery slope between gods and monsters. As personifications of radical otherness, the monsters of supernatural horror are often identified with the divine, especially with its more dreadful, maleficent aspects. And the experience of horror in the face of the monstrous is akin in many respects to religious experience: Both are often represented as encounters with mysterious otherness that elicit a vertigo-like combination of dread and fascination -- a feeling captured in the older spelling of "aweful," which retains its sense of awe.

Religions have always had their monsters; if you don't believe me, just skim the book of Genesis, or Revelation, or the Tibetan Book of the Dead, or the Epic of Gilgamesh. But monsters have their religion, too. Indeed, the most unstoppably undead monsters are almost always in some sense religious, figures of monstrously divine or anti-divine otherness. Our ancient myths are full of them, from the Babylonian chaos mother Tiamat, whom Marduk slays in order to create the world from her body; to the biblical sea serpent Leviathan in Psalm 74, whom God kills in order to form a habitable place of homeland security for God's people; to the book of Revelation's great red dragon, "that ancient serpent who is called the Devil and Satan." Likewise when it comes to the greatest supernatural monsters of modern-day horror, most notably that diabolical king of the undead, Count Dracula, whose shape-shifting forms reveals as much about our own anxieties and repressions of the other within us, and whose own roots trace back to ancient biblical dragons. In the religious mythologies of these and many other monsters, then as now, the stories of their demise always leave us with a deep unease, an unnerving sense that, no matter how certainly they have been destroyed, they will be back. Monsters, once made in the fiery furnaces of our religious imaginations, are almost impossible to unmake.

The past few times I've taught this course, I've begun the first session with a statement: "There's no such thing as Osama bin Laden," by which I mean to suggest that the Osama bin Laden we know is not a human being but, like other supernatural monsters, is a construction of our popular cultural imaginations. Even as the dust was still settling around Ground Zero, this monster was already rapidly taking form in the fiery, apocalyptic forges of the news media, tabloids, blogs, and political speechwriters. We had begun to envision ourselves in a battle of good against absolute evil, anti-God, anti-Allah, anti-freedom, anti-nation, anti-"us." And bin Laden was its omnipresent, omniscient incarnation.

And so the question mark will keep creeping up to the end of bin Laden's death sentence. Lord knows we're trying to get rid of it. That's what is drawing us to the news images and reports of him coloring his beard, watching himself on TV, and collecting porn, and that's what keeps us laughing, however uneasily, at Saturday Night Live's under-the-sea skit in which his corpse drops in on little mermaid Tina Fey, or Fred Armisen's impersonation of him requesting Dakota Fanning to be one of his pallbearers, or Andy Samberg as Nicolas Cage announcing that, in his next adventure movie, he's "gonna kill the ghost of Osama bin Laden." Is it time for a Mel Brooks musical? Springtime for bin Laden?

Deep down, we know that it'll take a lot more than all that and a slide of DNA to erase the inkling of insecurity that bin Laden will be back. Once made, this monster will not easily be unmade.

Alas, we knew not what we were doing.

(Postpost: after posting this article, several friends shared this from The Onion: "Giant Bin Laden Destroys New York, Washington". And so it begins ...)