We continue our discussion about the killing and its implications in this, the third post of DC contributors reactions to the killing of Osama bin Laden and its aftermath. In the first post, we considered reports from different places, in the second, different perspectives were offered. In this one, Kreider-Verhalle, Narvaez and Carducci, offer compelling judgments, although they are competing. I will add my reflections on these discussions later in the week. -Jeff
When President Obama announced the killing of Osama bin Laden, I tried to imagine the deadly scene in the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan where the elusive terrorist had been surprised by a group of American fighters, most likely while he was asleep. We are accustomed to being continuously exposed to an avalanche of images of what happens in the world around us. The possibility to see happenings, either live or through photos and video, gives us a first row seat at the world’s events, both intimate and distant. Most people also have a bent for fairytale-like stories, with good guys and bad guys, suppressing the confusing complexities of daily life.
Now we have to cope with a lack of images. All media organizations have reprinted and rebroadcast the few available photos and videos of the terrorist leader a thousand times. Because the Obama Administration will not release the material that shows the lifeless body of Bin Laden, we are instead presented with exclusive photos of ransacked rooms in the secretive compound with unmade beds and bloodstained floors. We are offered an inside peek into Bin Laden’s life with some shots of his cooking oil, a couple dozen unused eggs, some nasal spray and petroleum jelly.
We also have been allowed to see the expressions on the faces of President Obama and his team, watching the operation to kill ‘Geronimo’ unfold. Amidst all the secrecy of the operation, the oddest details have become news. The whole world now knows that a White House staffer had picked up turkey pita wraps, cold shrimp, potato chips and soda at a local grocery for the security team members during the nerve-racking operation.
How to translate the dry information without the images? The pictures of President Obama’s visit to Ground Zero offers us a grip on how to politically process the latest developments. Obama performs the role of the hero who insisted on bringing the man who had plotted the mass murder of countless innocent people to justice. It is interesting to put Obama’s visit to New York City in contrast with the ones of former President Bush, who dressed up in a flight suit to make an arrested landing on a military aircraft carrier before preemptively announcing that the mission in Iraq was accomplished.
There is a complexity to this story. For Obama, it did not matter that Bin Laden’s killing had to take place in a village in Pakistan, a questionable ally. That he was killed and not captured did not matter. That he will not be sentenced in court, and, as it has turned out, was unarmed did not matter. What mattered was that Obama had an opportunity to fulfill one of his political promises to the American people: bring Osama bin Laden to justice. It was the opportunity of a lifetime to pep up all Americans and to remind the world that one does not mess with the USA.
Zizek has argued that Bin Laden was not only a terrorist, but also a sort of media character fitting the image of a master criminal threatening not only this or that aspect of life but threatening total destruction, as though America were an insulated entity at risk. This image of “pure evil outside,” Zizek says, as it was a constant threat to the U.S., was also a constant reminder that evil was precisely “outside,” and thus our actions were always opposed to it. In this hyper real scenario, it seems to me, we could not quite see, for example, the reality of U.S. run “dark prisons,” or the reality of civilians, children and journalists included, who got killed in Iraq; civilians who appeared in the news as though they were anonymous extras in the larger drama. The killing of OBL (a fanatic and messianic terrorist, of course), has cast the sense, as it often happens in films, that something is over, that a new beginning is ahead, and that, in retrospect, the U.S. plotted this narrative according to a logic that makes sense. Yet, my suggestion is that precisely at this point it is necessary to go back and examine the events that, for the past 11 years, lead to the killing of OBL. His disappearance reminds me that, along with real events and real politics, there is also a dimension of politics in the U.S. which runs on a hyper real register, a dimension that is often hostile to reality as such.
I agree with the decision to not release photos of Bin Laden’s body (though Reuters released them, apparently from sources in Pakistan). Heads on pikes are not needed. Plus, risking a reaction from the radical end of Islam is not necessary. The UN, if I remember correctly, has asked for evidence that OBL was not executed after capture. Photos are needed for such agencies, to establish how he was killed, etc., but not for the public.
Every media representation is essentially a ghost image – i.e., a specter floating in the ether of the spectacle. No less so Osama bin Laden, who, while his physical trace has been eradicated from this mortal coil, already is emerging as some kind of undead, a phantom that keeps on haunting us. First was the official announcement, then the subsequent reactions pro and con, perhaps most notably the spontaneous celebrations that prompted discussion of the issue on Deliberately Considered. Following Max Weber, my reaction is taken sine irae et studio. What appears to be the apparent execution of Bin Laden fits well enough into the trope of frontier justice, a villain being given what he deserves by the heroes of the story. As a narrative climax, the money shot, as it were, has elicited the expected cheers from the intended audience. But as deconstructionist theory has taught us, every text is ultimately unstable, a site of semantic play, open to a variety of interpretations. Thus, the meaning of the event is being debated right and left, with interesting contortions on both sides, and I suspect will continue to be so for quite some time to come. I wish I could say that I thought something useful will come from these exchanges. But as Richard Lachmann suggests in the current issue of Contexts, the dilemmas we face are far more intractable: America’s imperium appears to be on the downward slide and “The Hunt for Osama bin Laden” is merely another symptom.