Osama bin Laden has made an appearance over the years in popular culture, from television shows to advertising to conspiracy theories. Brooke looks at how the various depictions of bin Laden represent both our dreams and our nightmares.
TaoArtist: by Coconot
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There is Osama bin Laden in his own words and Osama bin Laden as we would have him, the Osama of our daydreams and the Osama of our nightmares. Here’s a quick review of how we've dealt with the specter of bin Laden over the past 10 years. The Osama of daydreams is the one embraced by conspiracy theorists who base their views on what they believe are facts. To many of them, this daydream Osama is either still alive or long dead.
CHRIS CUNNINGHAM: Now, the most common belief was that he died in the bombing of Tora Bora, the battle of Tora Bora in 2001.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Chris Cunningham, writer and blogger of the bizarre at Professorhex.blogspot.com, has been following the bin Laden conspiracies.
CHRIS CUNNINGHAM: But he also had a host of physical ailments, as we've been told for years, including diabetes and terrible kidney failure, that he was on dialysis machines, he had Addison’s disease, perhaps he had Marfan Syndrome and even asthma. The idea that this man living in a cave someplace without access to proper medical care could survive as long as he did, to a lot of people they just assumed that he was dead.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Who liked that theory?
CHRIS CUNNINGHAM: Well, former CIA Case Officer Robert Baer said in 2008 that, well, of course he’s dead. And Counterterrorism Chief from the FBI, Dale Watson, said he thought he was probably dead. And [LAUGHS] and a writer named Angelo M. Codevilla said – this is my favorite quote – “All the evidence suggests Elvis Presley is more alive today than Osama bin Laden.” Angelo Codevilla, I should point out, is a former U.S. foreign intelligence officer and a Boston University professor.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So there’s a theory that he died in 2001. There’s a theory, I guess, that he also died earlier in the Obama administration.
CHRIS CUNNINGHAM: The new theory that you’re seeing on all the message boards is that somehow either the Obama administration or the Bush administration had his body somewhere on ice, some sort of “terrorsicle,” as I've been calling him – and they waited for the opportune moment to fake this entire excursion into Pakistan for [LAUGHS] fill-in-the-blank reasons.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Waiting for a politically opportune moment to, you know, trot him out.
CHRIS CUNNINGHAM: Why is now a politically [LAUGHS] opportune moment? Now, if the Bush administration had had a frozen Osama bin Laden [LAUGHS] on call, I think he would have played that card when [LAUGHING] the economy was collapsing, if for no other reason, to change the topic. And as to President Obama, I think it would have been a better card to play at the beginning of [LAUGHING] his administration, which probably would have ensured him a much less rocky road to begin with.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, I'm just thinking, you know, isn't there any of these theories that you might embrace, like, for instance, the one involving Donald Trump?
CHRIS CUNNINGHAM: Oh, okay, you got me there. That one I think might actually have a little [LAUGHS] validity to it. If I was the President and I had the chance to interrupt the last 15 minutes of Trump’s television show or wait 15 minutes, I'd probably interrupt Trump.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] I think most Americans would interrupt Trump.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] Don't you?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Chris Cunningham of Professorhex.blogspot.com. So much for the Osama of our daydreams. The Osama of our nightmares, the death bringer from land, sea and air, has been punctured in his long absence by cheap laughs. Soon after 9/11, a Saturday Night Live sketch had him cowardly suggesting alternate plans to his comrades intent on flying into the Twin Towers. In the wake of the attacks, South Park ran an episode called Osama bin Laden Has Farty Pants, where he’s depicted as a kind of Warner Brothers terminally unlucky Wiley Coyote.
[CLIP/MUSIC UP AND UNDER]:
OSAMA BIN LADEN: Uh-ohhh.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: After he is reduced by Cartman to a toothless stupor – [BIN LADEN’S PIANO KEY-LIKE TEETH PLAY SEVERAL NOTES FROM AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL] - a soldier shoots him in the head.
OSAMA BIN LADEN [MAKES NOISE W/LIPS] Terrorists is the craziest peoples! Eheeee! [GOOFY LAUGH] Ooh!
SOLDIER: I got him! I got him!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: On Family Guy, a goofy bin Laden tries to make a terrorist video.
[CLIP/MUSIC UP AND UNDER]:
ACTOR PLAYING OSAMA BIN LADEN: This is a message to all American infidels. Prepare to die in a sea of holy fire. You will be punished for your decadent ways on the first day of Radaman. You -
[LAUGHTER] Wait, wait a minute, wait. Did I just say R – what’d I say, Radaman?
[LAUGHTER] Rama – Rama – blah, blah, blah, blah. Ramadan. Radaman. What is that? What is Ra – wait – yeah, maybe Dennis Radaman is going to punish with you with his crazy hair.
DREW GRANT: And it was like an extra bloopers clip.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Drew Grant is a pop culture writer for Salon.
DREW GRANT: And then Stewie comes in and kills Osama. And you can see this becoming a prevailing theme in American pop culture.
ACTOR PLAYING OSAMA BIN LADEN: I'm, I'm not gonna be able to do it now. I’m not gonna – okay, all right, okay. No, you know, I just - I gotta get all the, I gotta get all the laughs out. Okay. [EXERCISES MOUTH]
DREW GRANT: So you could portray Osama bin Laden as a coward and you could make jokes about him, sending everyone else off into like the glory of Allah, while he like sits in his, you know, hole, mansion, cave, whatever. But you couldn't make fun of what actually happened.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Those jokes goading the specter of death gave us a pleasant frisson. They felt transgressive. They were for late night or cable, here that is. In the rest of the world, Osama jokes popped up in a far more cautious venue, advertising. And just as outrageously. Adman Mark Duffy, who blogs at Copyranter.blogspot.com, recalls a print ad made for Romania by the European headhunter Lugera & Makler.
MARK DUFFY: With a tight-cropped scene next to a computer, a man’s business card just says “City Airport,” and it has “Osama bin Laden, Air Traffic Controller,” with the headline “Right Headhunting Prevents Business Casualties.” [LAUGHS] Yeah, that’s like way over the top. I also found from China, J. Walter Thompson, a pretty big worldwide agency, did this ad, and it’s an infrared image of Osama bin Laden holding a walkie-talkie, the idea being that he’s using [LAUGHS] Halls Cough Drops, and they have a cooling effect. The cooling power of the cough drops has made him [LAUGHS] invisible to infrared detection. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, there was a, an ad for a Dutch children’s photography company?
MARK DUFFY: Yeah, it shows a supposed young, looks like about six-year-old Osama bin Laden, in a picture frame, and the headline says, “Kids are Cute, So Treasure the Moment.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, that’s really deep. [LAUGHS]
MARK DUFFY: Yeah. I guess that would motivate me to get some shots of my kids [BROOKE LAUGHS] before everything goes wrong, you know.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about the German pharmaceutical company that used Osama bin Laden to sell condoms?
MARK DUFFY: Yes, this was in Germany, an online pharmaceutical company called Doc Morris, and they showed illustrations of sperm, with the heads of various “evildoers,” as W. Bush called them. One of ‘em was Hitler, of course, this being Germany. And they don't have eyes on the sperm. They just have the hair. So with Hitler you have the, you know, that horrible comb-over and, of course, his iconic moustache. And Mao, you had his bowl cut. And then Osama bin Laden, you had the turban and the very iconic beard. And the message being, who knows how terrible your children are gonna be? [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You need a condom to protect you from the potentially terrorist sperm of your mate.
MARK DUFFY: It’s basically an ad for don't procreate, is really what it is. [LAUGHS] I just can't believe that he would be used [LAUGHS] to sell pretty much anything. I called it despot-vertising, 'cause it just seems to be a lot of, you know, Hitler, Stalin gets used.
[PARODY, TO TUNE OF DAY-O]: Come. Mr. Taliban, turn over bin Laden Payback come, and we drop the bomb Lift one bomb, two bomb, three bomb, four!
[OSAMA BIN LADEN BOMB SONG/UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There are plenty more nightmares where bin Laden came from. It feels good to imagine that this is the end of an era. But that really is a dream. We have an inexhaustible supply of fresh fears and we'll always feel the need of a cheap laugh to chase them away.
[OSAMA BIN LADEN BOMB SONG]: We say pay-o Kick your ass, then we wanna come home.