Our Critic’s Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Osama’s Siblings; Osama’s Whereabouts; and the War on Osama

In his forthcoming Observer review of The Second Plane, Tom Bissell admires this throwaway Martin Amis line: “I found myself frivolously wondering whether Osama was just the product … of his birth order. Seventeenth out of fifty-seven is a notoriously difficult slot to fill.” Funny, but not entirely accurate—or so I gather from Steve Coll’s The Bin Ladens (Penguin Press, $35), an epic history of the vast and vastly rich Saudi Arabian family that spawned W.’s nemesis. Meticulous and compulsively readable, Mr. Coll’s book has a huge cast of characters, swollen by the legion of Osama siblings—the exact number of which is apparently tricky to establish. (One declassified F.B.I. e-mail from 2003 referred to the “millions” of bin Ladens “running around”—and added, reassuringly, that “99.999999% of them are of the non-evil variety.”) Mr. Coll counts 54 children of Mohamed bin Laden, and notes that Mohamed “fathered seven children during the year of Osama’s birth—five sons and two daughters.” His cautious conclusion is that “Osama arrived among the Bin Ladens as somewhere between son number seventeen and son number twenty-one.”


MR. COLL IS after the facts. Morgan Spurlock, the filmmaker who brought you Super Size Me, is after something slightly different in Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden? (Random House, $25), the print companion to the documentary of the same name, which is scheduled for release on April 18. Mr. Spurlock was inspired to take his “complete lack of knowledge, experience, or expertise and put it to good use by looking for the most wanted and most dangerous man on earth.” He plays his quest for laughs, mostly: His peripatetic one-man crusade is a satiric recapitulation of the Bush administration’s tragically clueless foreign policy. But when earnestness eventually engulfs him, Mr. Spurlock dribbles do-good pieties across the page: “We can’t fight a War on Terror,” he concludes, “without fighting the things that cause normal, rational people to sympathize with terrorists.”


A MORE NUANCED observer of the geopolitical situation, Mark Danner, has posted on his Web site the text of a speech he delivered at the Tenth Asia Security Conference in February in New Delhi. It’s a bitter appraisal of progress of the global war Mr. Bush declared three days after 9/11:

“So how, finally, do we ‘take stock of the War on Terror’? Let me suggest three words:

“1. Fragmentation—brought about by ‘creative destabilization,’ as we see it not only in Iraq but in Lebanon, Palestine, and elsewhere in the region;

“2. Diminution—of American prestige, both military and political, and thus of American power;

“3. Destruction—of the political consensus within the United States for a strong global role.

“Gaze for a moment at those three words and marvel at how far we have come in a half-dozen years.” Our Critic’s Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Osama’s Siblings; Osama’s Whereabouts; and the War on Osama