Osama and Tony, brothers in banality

Posted: Mar 18, 2002 12:00 AM
When terrorists' wives speak, people listen. And anyone listening to Osama bin Laden's wife can't avoid the unmistakable parallel between bin Laden and, of course, Tony Soprano. Different wardrobe, different makeup, different rationalizations, same M.O. Here's what a woman claiming to be bin Laden's wife, identified only by the initials "A.S.," says about Osama in an interview with the London-based Arabic weekly al-Majallah: He often came home late from work; he was often irritated; he had to take medicine to sleep and was "constantly worried and looked tired." You can see Tony's wife, Carmela, nodding with that knowing smirk. The headline on the interview with A.S. cinched it for me: "Terrorism made bin Laden irritable." What are Mafiosos if not terrorists? And what Mafioso is more famously tired, worried and irritable than "T"? Being the head of a New Jersey Mafia family makes Tony so irritable and stressed out, he has to seek the help of a psychiatrist. Each week, in between busting kneecaps and training new recruits (Osama's blowing up buildings/training new recruits?), Tony can be found sitting in the office of Dr. Jennifer Melfi, taking anti-depressants and discussing the existential dilemma we all know and dread so well. What's it all about, Alfie? For those who've never watched "The Sopranos," don't. If you haven't caught the bug by now, you're probably not going to like it. The HBO series, which chronicles the life of a modern Mafia family, is profane and explicit in every way. If, however, you can manage to get past the sometimes X-rated content, the theme is irresistible: tough, murdering Mafioso is fundamentally a mess - a typical human being conflicted about everything. Like the rest of us, Tony is trying to balance work and family, raise two kids, keep the marriage afloat, all the while sorting through his love/hate relationship with his complicated mother. Prozac, anyone? Even bin Laden has mother problems. She was the fourth and last official wife of his father, but was never fully accepted by the rest of the family. As the offspring of a reject, as well as one of some 55 children, we can guess that Osama may not have felt quite special. Is Freud listening? Given so many parallels, perhaps Tony Soprano offers some insights into how we might deal with the withering bearded one. Here's what else we know about Tony: He suffers hugely from the harm he brings to others. He has frequent panic attacks, sometimes passing out. Yet, and herein lies the source of his conundrum, he refuses to take ownership of the consequences of his actions. A textbook narcissist, he is, alas, in denial. But there's another layer to Tony that transcends psychoanalysis. Tony is a brat. What Tony wants, Tony takes. He uses women and discards them like cigar stubs. When things don't go his way, he throws tantrums - yells, breaks things, pouts, stomps out of the room. When things
really don't go his way - or when someone crosses him - bones snap, people die. Unlike Tony, Osama didn't have to prove himself on the mean streets of Jersey. But like children of the Soprano family, he was denied nothing. The New Yorker magazine described Osama's childhood this way: "Tutors and nannies, bearers and butlers formed a large part of his life. He and his half brothers - and, to a lesser extent, his 30 half sisters - were playmates of the children of the kingdom's most prominent families, including various royal princes and princesses." Tony, like Osama, manages to rationalize his criminality and his inhumanity in a false cloak of family loyalty and "Old World" values born of his people's historical mistreatment by others. In his mind, Tony is always a lesser immigrant; Osama is a relic of the 12th-century Crusades. The insistent truth - the moral of the story - is that no matter how well Tony dresses his family or how carefully he justifies his actions according to some antiquated ethos, he's still just a thug and a brat. He'll continue to be sleepless and irritable until he accepts responsibility for his immoral choices. Or until someone takes him out. Owing to our affection in this country for psychoanalysis, maybe we've strained too hard to understand Osama bin Laden's inner being and "why they hate us." Sometimes, a thug is just a thug, and a brat is just a brat. And sometimes the only solution, which may explain Dr. Melfi's growing alcoholism, is to take them out.