The banality of evil?
Not a bit of it. He was undeniably charismatic. The sort of man you’d have noticed no matter what he was wearing, with or without the patriarchal beard. A devout Muslim (not a good one), he never claimed to be a prophet, but to us he seemed to play the part, and he definitely looked it. No one doubted his sincerity or claimed that his monstrous zeal, hateful as it was, disguised a shabbier vice. There was nothing shabby about him. He was grand, mysterious; not pure evil, perhaps, but pure and evil at the same time.
Now that he’s dead, Al Qaeda appears to be what it was all along: just another terrorist organization, distinguished only by the scale of its success, not by the unique nature of its motivations. Its grievances are no more metaphysical, and no less historical, than those of the IRA (for example). Osama bin Laden’s death robs his movement of its satanic glamour. So long as we had his face to look at, we could imagine, as his followers did, that the conflict was between innocence and absolute evil. For them, it was martyrs versus decadent kafirs; for us, tolerant, life-affirming moderns versus primitive, self-loathing nihilists. Now we’re back where we started, left with politics and the failure of politics, our desire for security and peace (in that order) and their desperate rage. There can be no excuse for what they’ve done, or what they’re still trying to do. But terrorists are no exception to the rule: everyone has his reasons. Knowing that Al Qaeda’s reasons must be bad ones because of their effects is no substitute for knowing what they are.