Osama bin Laden and Necro-Nationalism

by on May.02, 2011

Last night I felt something similar to what many people felt on 9/11–not a primal upsurge of common feeling, but the gradual awareness that if I said what I really thought I would be chased down by red-blooded mobs singing the Star Spangled Banner. Let’s take one metric of public opinion: Facebook, which I’ve never seen as unified and unequivocal as last night. The status updates I saw were devoted to jubilant celebration, many posts being the few political posts written by people who largely restrict their status updates to the trivially private (e.g., photos of dogs). This was clearly one of the few moments where the political became social and symbolic. And in reaction to this celebratory Facebook deluge, I felt what in First Amendment law is called the “chilling effect”–a term premised on the fact that censorship works by forcing subjects to internalize the censor and monitor themselves. Since I’m hesitant to express myself via that most popular method of group affiliation (Facebook), here are some scattered, non-celebratory thoughts. As a disclaimer, obviously the US clearly achieved an important military objective that has been at the center of our self-imagination for more than a decade and helped many people achieve closure on the most traumatic military event of their lifetimes, 9/11.

1. Why I’m allergic to symbolism
(Or as YC told me last night: “Does this mean we can forget now?”)

While I’m glad that Obama did not frame Osama’s death using Bush-era Manichean Crusaderism, I do not like the narrative that we do possess: that we have achieved justice by avenging the deaths of 9/11 by killing a man who has largely been referred to as the “mastermind” of the war on terror. While this may seem uncontroversially true, this is only another story and not a useful one for us because it displaces real politics with a dangerous symbolism. On a general level, I think it’s wrong to imagine the achievement of a military objectives as a victory for the American people. We have spent the last decade in several country, amassing more than 4,424 US casualties in Iraq and 1,461 casualties in Afghanistan–not to mention the countless civilians killed in both countries–to learn that foreign policy should not be an instrument of catharsis.

The dualistic positioning encourages an Us vs. them simplification of foreign policy in which the US flies in as the sheriff of Islamabad to corral a James Bond-ian, Lex Luthor-style villain, when international relations is not about important personas and requires us to expand our moral and psychological menu beyond such good guy vs bad guy oppositions. After all, anti-Muslim hate crimes happen when regular citizens cannot imagine a more sophisticated moral vocabulary than good and evil. The narrative frame imagines justice in its most base form (retribution) and American achievement not as, say, rule of law, but as the application of military might to violated sovereignty and execute a non-judicial assassination. Osama’s death is notched as an achievement of the Obama administration, rather than the culmination of the same drone strikes and anti-sovereignty incursions in Pakistan that many liberals have protested for years. If this is a symbolic victory, what’s surprising is how little thought appears to have been given to the symbolic import this will have for the rest of the world. Obama’s message–which could have been a paradigm-shifting Cairo speech about troop withdrawls in Iraq and Afghanistan–was only a news update, a reminder of American power targeted at Americans and not the world.

2. I want to pay Tony Hoagland to become to poet laureate of necro-nationalism.

Here’s the idea: He would be perfect to write the anthem of American jingoism–the equivalent to the chanting crowds of last night or the few riffs of Born in the USA that the GOP plays at their rallies. Having then written it, I would then appropriate it as the blatantly ironic portrait of a militant, vengeful jingoism that over the next few weeks will no doubt trigger reprisals from a newly minted martyrdom and lead to hate crimes against Muslims in the US. While the original poem would mirror the anomalous and jubilant crowds that seemed to celebrate 9/11 in West Asia, my critical appropriation of it would expose the sickly Francis Bacon face of American nationalism. Such a poem would wield a truly terrifying necomantic power: just as the deaths of Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor created imaginary communities of nostalgia, the death of bin Laden has created a death-celebrating volk. There should be no doubt that we are celebrating is not the triumph of good, but the vitalization of death, as depicted in the video of bin Laden’s compound, described as “full of blood.”

3. Why what happened is irrelevant.

The United States government itself has spent the last several years explaining that bin Laden was a marginal player–the figurehead of a brand without a leader. In this respect, because Al Qaeda is an idea rather than a bureaucracy, the death of bin Laden will be mostly symbolic in import, rather than operational. For an operational point of view, it will be the equivalent of thinking that the death of Mark Zuckerberg would stop Facebook.

Similarly, the death will no doubt help Obama’s election numbers, but for what end? The death will only entrench and justify the egregious, mistaken policies of the Bush administration, especially since the GOP has used the moment to support torture at Gitmo, even though there is no evidence that such intelligence aided the operation. (To quote, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) in a Monday morning tweet: “Wonder what President Obama thinks of water boarding now?”) Do most people know that on the same weekend we assassinated Qaddafi’s son and grandchildren? That the Navy Seals most likely shot down at least one woman civilian used by bin Laden as a human shield? That we sent two helicopters deep into Pakistan territory, only an hour away form the capital, and didn’t even share information with them?

5. The Mysterious Lack

If our story is about the triumph of the American ideal, what has struck me is how much bin Laden has represented a mysterious lack, the shadowy barred other. From his existence more as a video-taped audio-visual object than a real body, he has been more an idea than a man, predicted to be located in placeless caves, the revolutionary whose positions many Americans could not describe and who possessed DIY A/V equipment rather than the spectacle of the Third Reigh, and who now no longer possesses a visible body, having been buried at sea. (Any large military force knows that a body must be vanished to inoculate it against from possessing the spectacle of the martyr’s). And how ironic that the symbols that guided US intelligence to his residence where his very own attempts at subterfuge: the occupants of the house burning their trash rather than putting it out for collection, the house’s lack of telephone and Internet connections. And the Obama administration itself put bin Laden at ease through a false sense of ease: by reducing drone strikes in the area, while increasing surveillance. My favorite story about Osama’s death is that of thirty-three year old man Sohaib Athar, who unknowingly tweeted about the helicopter attacks, hearing loud noises next door to bin Laden’s compound, wondering if it was a drone, trying to get some IT work done as he was waiting for his life to continue.

Lest we imagine that this is a show of American force, remember that the lesson of the last few months has been that the United States has been relegated to a follower in the middle east. The exciting movements that capture the popular imagination do not come from Al Qaeda–which is hardly a broad-based social movement–but from the Arab Spring. While we should not conflate movements in place as different as Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Bahraim, in almost every case the United States and NATO has waited for stage directions from the local movements. In fact, this was the appropriate place in the storyline for Osama to die, since we are now in a new narrative, one in which the cultural symbology of the Bush-era War on Terror should be put behind us.

18 comments for this entry:
  1. Kent Johnson

    Written this AM, fairly on topic to the post.



    We have taken custody of his body.

    In this moment of intimacy, may our sins seem washed away.

    For look: Thousands of youth with phones mass in flash release: They bear flags; they scale trees; they stand, pushed up, balancing on the hands of their companions. They are astonished to be living it.

    Sudden shot on the screen: Two boys leap into the air, again and again, crash ecstatically against the chest of the other. Someone’s beautiful daughter breaks away, runs screaming towards the lens,
    thumbs up, tongue out, in a kind of ululation.

    Try to understand us. Try to see we share your fears, desires, dreams. Poetry matters to us no less than it matters to you. It has been this way, and so it will. Deep grief and joy, great pleasure and pain get fused; who can tell, sometimes, the difference on the face?

    Anchorman asks a guest on Skype: “He has been called
    the very face of Evil… You who lost your father in the tower on that terrible day, how does this historic moment make you feel?”

    “O,” he says, “It’s hard to find the words. At first I was so happy, and then I felt guilty, all of a sudden, to be celebrating a death, so to speak; it felt strange, you know, no matter how evil he was. But then my mother said, No, son, you have every right to feel happiness now and to just let it go. And so I do. But you know, Brian, it’s not
    his face I recall right now. It is the face of my father, a picture I carry in my mind from long ago, and he is holding open a door.”

  2. Josh Corey

    Thanks for this, Johannes, and for your poem, Kent, which movingly captures the bitter ritual ambivalence of this moment for me and no doubt others.

  3. Johannes

    I didn’t actually write this. It was Ken Chen. But I’ll accept your thanks on his behalf.


  4. Kent Johnson

    Thanks, Josh. I just wrote Ken Chen with kudos for his post. Sort of weird (and reassuring, if that;s the word) to write it and then see Ken’s powerful essay.


  5. Monica Mody

    Brilliant essay. Thanks, Ken.

  6. Kent Johnson

    As the celebrations unfold, from Rich Owens, in Maine, editor of Damn the Caesars journal and Punch Press:

    >firing on half a tank today, but Jonathan Skinner just passed around pics of a mosque defaced last night in Portland, just 10 minutes north of here: slogans inscribed on the exterior: “OSAMA TODAY ISLAM TOMORROW” and “LONG LIVE THE WEST.”

    As Rich says, I suppose this is all what Badiou would call an “event.”

  7. Carina Finn

    “if I said what I really thought I would be chased down by red-blooded mobs singing the Star Spangled Banner: — that’s exactly how I felt. then I got an e-mail from my boss this morning with a video of some ND students pretty much doing exactly that : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S3hrhaAi2lc&feature=player_embedded

  8. Nancy

    Mysterious lack of #4… Is that intentional? Insightful essay. Thank you. Of course, I want to publish it on FB, but I respect your hesitancy to express yourself in that arena. I had the same experience. It just doesn’t sit well.

  9. Ryan Sanford Smith

    Interesting that so many that decried so much force in a war against ‘an idea’ then fail to value the effect of a symbolic victory of this scale.

    Some people are worth celebrating the death of. There’s a corollary to ideas as well, if you were guessing.

    Let’s decry the deaths of Qadaffi’s family members & the woman Osama kept specifically as a human shield, and forget the innocent lives both orchestrated the deaths of / were going to continue orchestrating. There’s a very explicit ethical framework surrounding collateral damage that would very kindly inform this piece of text.

    This reminds me of the easy initial criteria for debating anyone over the invasion of Iraq; if one begins a sentence by saying anything along the lines of, ‘Well, sure Saddam was kind of a bad guy, BUT…’ you can stop right there. The debate is over. You are debating with someone who has either a feeble grasp of history or a feeble conviction in recognizing it in any real way. We could allow stray drone attacks for a century and still be eclipsed by the brutality enacted by these regimes, and how easy to sit on a blog any take such paltry ideological stands.

    I’d like to see elaboration on the notion that this ‘symbology’ is Bush-era related in any way, this seems like a very arbitrary statement and I don’t know what would support it.

    When was the US ‘relegated’ to anything? In what way were the coalition gestures anything but orchestrated by the US itself? Should we return to Bush-era unilateral brow-beatings? You can’t have it both ways unless the argument is for isolationism, which considering the global landscape right now is the only remaining option. I suppose is it easier to ignore the celebrating with one’s fingers in one’s ears, but that hardly leaves you hands to keep pulling yourself up onto the pedestal.

    It may be uncomfortable or even ‘wrong’ to see that military achievements are cultural achievements, but that has no bearing on their truth; again, 9/11 brought many things to a point at which ignoring the enemy wasn’t good enough anymore, because they aren’t ignoring us, and one can ignore ideas but not bullets or airplanes.

    I feel a great deal of empathy for the ideas behind this essay, but like so often when encountering these ideals I simply don’t understand what the counteroffer is. What do you do with those madmen with which there is, without doubt, zero space for discussion or arbitration and for whom appeasment would mean a sacrifice of anything resembling conviction or an acknowledgement of the reality of the world today? You can’t poem them away, or articulate yourself to smashingly that they simply concede the point, go home and tend to their livestock. They will work, actively, to kill you, those you love, and the things you hold dear. This is not fear mongering, this is the reality of the situation. To consider the enemy currently powerless is to ignore the things occuring outside our borders, including attacks abroad and the effect our occupation has had on quelling even further attacks.

    To stop them you must at the very least contain them to the point of complete powerlessness, which is ostensibly the same as killing them, and collateral damage is impossible, though increasingly in smaller ratios thanks to the progress of technology.

    I’m open. I’d love an alternative, but I’ve yet to see one grounded in reality. I’m often accused of being idealistic on this blog and I’m sure it’ll happen again, but right now I think I can level in return.

    I also feel I understand being uncomfortable with ‘us vs. them’, but…on the scale of the matter at hand, that is precisely the situation. We can take into account the ignorant morons that conflate ‘them’ with ‘all of Islam’ and disregard them in this consideration.

    It is adorable though when folks tell me what I’m ‘really’ celebrating.

  10. Dan Hoy

    Kent, in the same way he states that 9/11 was not an event, Badiou would not consider this an event. It does not impact the relations of power or the “status” of those who are not counted. Nothing new has coalesced. I understand you criticizing his tone as pretentious but if you want to extend this criticism beyond that you will unfortunately have to suffer through his pretension and actually read the texts.

    I also just want to say that, generally speaking, the use of Tony Hoagland’s symbolic visage as a donkey target seems unfair but also, from a critical perspective, too easy. This is not in reference to Ken’s post so much as to the racism controversy in general. The readings themselves do not feel challenging enough to me.

    In any case, I have thoughts on the strategic considerations behind the Osama announcement along with the specific content strategy of the “narrative” itself as it relates to Weekend at Bernie’s, but these will have to wait or be buried at sea as I am currently undergoing my own bodily trauma as part of the necro-narrative portion of my life.

  11. Kent Johnson

    Dan, thanks. You are a closer reader of Badiou than I am, I know, so I accept your correction on this matter of “event.”



    […] essays on Osama Bin Laden’s assassination that got me thinking. First is from Ken Chen at Montevidayo, and the second is from Noah Cicero. blog comments powered by Disqus […]

  13. Kent Johnson

    One thing I meant to mention. I really hadn’t read Ken’s post closely enough when I commented and generally praised his remarks. I DO think his comments about the dark death-celebrations (what I read first and was responding to, mainly) are very keen and brave, but I should say that I’ve always thought the perpetrators of 9/11 should be brought to justice through concerted police action of some kind. They are, it should be obvious, quasi-fascist in ideology and horrifically atavistic in action. I wish it would have been a UN-sanctioned and *international* police action from the start, obviously, though there was never really the chance of that. In any case, I should have read more carefully: I find some of what Ken says later to be pretty problematic (with some worthy points still therein). And if anything, what happened on May 1 fairly proves that two protracted and horrific wars were never at all necessary to deal with the threat.

  14. Ken Chen

    Hi all,

    Sorry for taking so long to write here. And thanks for the warm comments and, Kent, for your poem. I like the quote at the end. I wanted to add a few points of clarification.

    1. It goes without saying that I’m against Al Qaeda, that Bin Laden should be held accountable for 9/11, and that there were few other practicable alternatives than what actually happened. (In fact, in the essay, I generally don’t discuss what actually happened in terms of the kill–I’m far more opposed to how we symbolically represented it and how we reacted to it, which is also political.) I figured that this goes without saying and did not need mentioning. I should probably also clarify that I’m not an absolute pacifist. Clearly killing happens to accomplish military objectives, but I don’t think it should be the servant of retribution (which makes politics personal and is only one of the many forms of justice identified in, say, criminal law) and I don’t want to party down in its favor. Obviously, I’ve learned that my view is the minority one.

    2. I just thought it was necessary to 1) speak out against the nearly universally jingoistic and death-celebrating tone that night; and 2) take a more long-term accounting of the symbolic consequences of the moment. While bin Laden’s death is a great coup for the US, like all things it is ambiguous and, regardless of how flawless we executed the military tactics that lead to his death, I’m concerned about the larger symbolic strategy, the messaging around his death. Part of what bothered me is that Sunday night, I felt like most people I knew suddenly became “political”–but in a way where the ideological and pragmatic content of the politics had been dissolved. If you accept #1 above, then some questions I would have might be:
    A. What is the optimal way to present the completion of this military objective to the world community in a way that maximally regains US credibility, inspires faith in the Muslim world, and deters future terrorists?
    B. Is the assassination of opposition leaders acceptable and if so, why or why not? I believe the Geneva Convention forbids it.
    C. Is it acceptable to kill an unarmed enemy? Again, I think that things couldn’t have happened much differently, but many international critics question the legality of how the Navy Seals killed almost unanimously unarmed targets.
    D. Was the incursion deep into Pakistan an acceptable violation of sovereignty? If it was problematic with drones and Raymond Davis, then not now?
    I could go on. In each case, I don’t know that I would have necessarily wanted the US to have handled things differently. We accomplished our goal. These aren’t event questions I care about that much–I just don’t think that the acceptable answer to them is to reduce the complexity by saying, “It doesn’t matter–we got bin Laden!”

    3. Obviously, I’m most concerned about question A and I think that we handled that poorly, no matter how well executed the assault on the compound was. I’m not going to write a 4000 word essay on military tactics. I think the real political consequential fall-out of the speech will come from things like Obama’s speech, the jingoistic crowds on the streets, the GOP politicians rooting for torture. I think it was wrong of Obama to use the completion of this military objective as proof of American exceptionalims. I think a speech targeted less at us and more at the world stage–a Cairo II–might have been more appropriate. I also worry about the consequences this unifying nationalistic moment will have on us internally. I represented a girl detained by Homeland Security and know many people who’ve been profiled or detained, as does my girlfriend who is Arab. My coworker, who is South Asian, came into work freaked out about the speech, as she was sure this meant there’d be another round of attacks on South Asian and Muslim Americans.

    4. I think that there will be another terrorist attack and many people will have problems knowing how to place it narratologically–after all, didn’t we end the war on terror?

    Whoops!–someone at the door. Got to go!

  15. Rodrigo

    Badiou would go further than to state that this is not an event. He would label it evil, as it a simulacra of an event. I think this is a much more troubling possibility.

    Please connect the dots, we are headed for disaster.

  16. online spil

    Janet Napalitano could not punch her way thru a wet paper bag. She is a coward.If I read you correctly, get some help, try to mature, you suffer from liberal illusion.

  17. Johannes

    Great argument Syble. You come off as a very informed person.

  18. Dan Hoy

    Reread this just now since it appeared in the recent comments box. Interesting Ken that you referred to “countless civilian” casualties in the initial post. They really are countless within the coordinates of the mainstream media. This is why the Pentagon under Obama loves drones so much: they don’t create deaths that can actually be enumerated.

    Rodrigo is 100% correct: Welcome to the disaster.