Finding Bin Laden in the suburbs

There has been a lot of commentary about where Osama Bin Laden was found in Pakistan. On one hand, there has been a lot of interest in his house, including people dubbing the compound a “McMansion.” (However, reports yesterday and today have suggested that the house was less unusual or prominent as was first suggested.) On the other hand, he was found in an unusual military town. Here is one take that suggests that Bin Laden was found in the unlikeliest of places: a suburb.

We now all know that, of course, bin Laden was not in a cave. He was hiding in plain sight in a million-dollar mansion in a posh suburb of Islamabad.

Not only that, the suburb was a military complex described as Pakistan’s West Point. And the mansion apparently was built expressly for him – as though he were some chief executive officer cashing in on his bonus options, so he wasn’t being especially discreet.

He apparently had been living there undisturbed for six years, according to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). He was a suburbanite enjoying the pleasures of a life of leisure – behind 12-foot walls.

This was so far beyond our expectation of how the world’s most wanted terrorist would be living that no one, apparently, bothered to look for him outside the mountains. Terrorists just don’t live in the suburbs.

I’m not so sure this community was a suburb. It was at least an hour outside of Islamabad. It was also a military community, not necessary a resort community. However, there have been reports that a number of wealthier military officials live in this community. And Bin Laden was living a life of leisure when he was possibly in the same room for five years? Bin Laden is comparable to a CEO “cashing in on his bonus options”? In terms of thinking that this community is like a typical American suburb outside of Los Angeles or Chicago and Bin Laden was the typical suburban head of household, this is not quite the case.

The story goes on to cite the sociological idea of “lifestyle enclaves”:

Back in 1985, the sociologist Robert Bellah and his cohort, in their seminal book “Habits of the Mind,” coined the term “lifestyle enclaves” to describe the way Americans had begun to cluster on the basis of “shared patterns of appearance, consumption and leisure activities, which often serve to differentiate them sharply from those with other lifestyles.”

These enclaves were self-selected – you gravitated toward others like you. In the sociologists’ view, they were increasingly replacing real community in America with these superficial bonds of similarity.

There are dozens of these enclaves today – from members of the National Rifle Association, to upwardly mobile young married couples, to outdoorsmen, to the very wealthy. Enclaves have become a primary way we define ourselves.

But I doubt that Bellah and the others ever thought of terrorists as a possible enclave back when they were writing the book. Yet the concept of people who choose to live with others who look like them and think like them is now so deeply embedded in our consciousness that the idea of a terrorist enclave apparently did cross the mind of the intelligence community today.

The conclusion of the piece is that Bin Laden was found because he didn’t play by the “lifestyle enclave”/suburban rules. So all of the residents of Abbotabad were terrorists?

All of this seems like a stretch in order to connect to the average American suburban reader. The basic premise could be interesting: the suburbs (or more rural/military town suburbs) are supposed to be the land of safety, not the place where terrorists (or any people who commit violent crimes) actually live next door. But to suggest that Bin Laden was similar to a typical suburbanite and was caught because he didn’t fit in seems kind of silly. Projecting the image of the American suburbs on Abbotabad, Pakistan may not be the best way to understand a complex situation.

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