In the absence of Osama Bin Laden’s body will his Pakistani compound become a place of pilgrimage?
Who lives in a house like this? The media has had conniptions speculating about the late Osama Bin Laden’s digs. The presence of the house has had to suffice to represent the man in the absence of a corporeal Bin Laden - alive or dead. Nothing has been too trivial.
Taiwanese TV focused on the house’s unfortunate feng shui; the Guardian’s Alexander Chancellor mused on a possible smoking ban indoors. Discussion of the house has also had its more serious propaganda purposes.
Although newspapers have repeatedly described the house as a lair, without a shadowy cave or an underground bunker complete with leather chair and white cat to stroke, the emphasis has rested on how evil Bin Laden has been living in a ‘mansion’.
He has resided in palatial, hypocritical luxury, whereas the reality for his Islamist minions has more often been a hovel. An Obama administrative official described the building as an ‘extraordinarily unique compound in an affluent suburb’.
US government speculation put the compound’s value at $1 million (£600,000), whereas local estate agents reckoned that it would fetch around $250,000 (£150,000). Every newspaper displayed the same graphic - issued by the US government - a bird’s-eye axonometric view showing not a lot but walls.
The spot where the ‘paranoid’ household burnt its refuse was duly marked and appeared to fascinate readers. Paranoid? Any international criminal mastermind worth their salt would do the same - they are out to get you.
It seems strange to stress the Abbottabad house’s atypicality, its monstrous size and fortress form, because, if that were true, why wasn’t it noticed by Osama’s hunters earlier on?
The implicit question is how could the unreliable Pakistani military not have observed the existence of such an outsized palace in such close proximity to one of their own elite academies.
In actual fact, the roughly finished concrete multi-family compound house, with its scabbed walls, is a typical middle-class model across secure and insecure terrains in Asia and the Middle East. The building’s walls may have been on the high side but it wasn’t windowless, as any cursory look at a photograph shows.
It remains to be seen as this story shifts whether, after initially demonising the building by guilty association, it becomes more useful to stress its cunning anonymity.
The Daily Mail has already used the (as we are told) torture-derived information trail leading to its door as justification for water-boarding. Propagandists want to read the story both ways.
However, there is also a perennial fascination with the homes of tyrants, criminals and despots. Peter York’s funny, snobbish 2005 book, Dictators’ Homes, was an examination of tyrant kitsch - what he called an ‘aesthetic schadenfreude’ at the interior design hubris of the powerful but deranged.
Saddam Hussein’s billion-dollar palaces with gold taps and soft porn murals of buxom lovelies being ravished were perfect in this respect. Especially since conquering GIs lolled in its marble halls while the mightily fallen Saddam cowered in his dusty spider hole.
British artists Langlands and Bell were among those intrigued by the hideout of Bin Laden. The pair’s 2003 work House of Osama Bin Laden abandoned their trademark cool white architectural models for what has been described as a ‘CNN Newscape’ CAD rendering of what his lair might have been like.
Accurately mundane, as it turns out, down to the sub-continental wooden charpoy (daybed). (Which will probably disappoint York.)
Langlands and Bell told the AR: ‘In the end the blurred photographs of the bloodstained double bed, the charpoy and the wardrobe reveal a world devoid of creativity, a world of emotional poverty and haunting banality.’ They liken the hiding place to a student hostel and note the overplaying of its grandeur by the media.
What next for the compound? Will it, like other ‘evil’ locations such as serial killer Fred West’s Gloucester house in the UK, or Hitler’s Berlin bunker, be purged and destroyed? Certainly, such destruction would satisfy the crowds celebrating at Ground Zero in New York.
In the so-called ‘war on terror’, tactics such as the assassination or the demolition of the suicide bomber’s family home, have become commonplace, despite the illegality of both actions under international laws governing the conduct of war.
Already Bin Laden’s compound is becoming an attraction, in the same way in which Khmer Rouge ‘butcher’ Ta Mok’s dreary compound with its naïve Angkor Wat memorials has an uncomfortable ambivalence.
Situated in the remote Cambodian village of Anlong Veng, it feels more like a shrine, tended to by loyal locals, than a genocide museum. (Pol Pot’s grave up the road is used to divine lottery numbers by his followers.)
Bin Laden’s unremarkable hideout could equally become a place of pilgrimage rather than just a dark tourist curiosity. In the absence of a body, the building could still become a shrine, a touchstone.
If the compound were to be destroyed, like Hitler’s bunkers were, it would not reduce acts of terror or make Bin Laden any less of a hero to his supporters. The man will remain mythical, house or no house.
Rather than erase the architectural endpoint of his murderous career, it is better to tolerate uncomfortable ambivalences. To demolish such a structure, whether a house or Bamiyan Buddhas, is the fundamentalist’s choice.