by Ken Chen 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.