Saturday, May 14, 2011

Shoot at the Devil: RIP (?) Osama Bin Laden

"Sweet Caroline, Bah, Bah, Bah..."
By now I'm sure that anyone reading this will already have heard the news that Osama Bin Laden has been declared officially dead by some Death Technician Specialists AKA US Navy SEALs. Osama Bin Laden -for those of you who don't know- was the dude held primarily responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks way back in 2001 which resulted in the destruction of the Twin Towers AKA the New York World Trade Center, part of the Pentagon, and the deaths of about 3000 people.  On May 2 / 2011 the US media was abuzz with the news which showed countless clips of Americans celebrating in the streets, waving their American flags, and singing improvised variations of cheesy 60's songs sung slightly off-key (My favourite so far: "Na na na na, na na na na, Osama Goodbye!").  Right from the beginning the whole affair just didn't sit right with me, like a hamburger from Burger King.  And just like that disgusting excuse for a sandwich news of Bin Laden's death caused me some acute intestinal discomfort.

Osama Bin Laden was perhaps the biggest celebrity in the Western world despite his espoused hatred of everything it stands for and despite incurring the officially stated wrath of all nations contained therein.  Ever since the 9/11 attacks our culture has had an obsession with Bin Laden.  For ten , long years Western media has mythologized Osama Bin Laden as the ultimate Boogie Man.  At least for this generation he is what parents -especially in the US- have told their children to check under their beds for before they turn off the lights.  Ever since September of 2001 any and every report of potential terrorism both domestic and foreign has had the underlying subtext that it was somehow -in some vague, undefinable way- connected to Osama.  Somehow all terrorism in the world somehow occurred at the ubiquitous will and whim of Bin Laden.  Osama Bin Laden was Terrorism, with a capital T.  In Western culture Osama Bin Laden will now occupy a realm occupied by the likes of Hitler.  His notoriety has now expanded past the point of legend.  Just mention his name in the West and it stirs up all kinds of emotions like fear and anger far past the point that one mortal could logically invoke in another mortal he had never met before.  But we love it.  As we construct a common Societal Narrative -largely through the media- we need antagonists to act as catalysts in the story.  It is very important in order to make the narrative as simple and accessible to the largest audience that the Good Guys and the Bad Guys are clearly defined and easily identifiable.  Without the Bad Guy our hero has nothing to fight against.  We loved Osama Bin Laden precisely because he gave us something to hate.  It's a strange sort of emotionally sado-masochistic relationship that we can't get enough of.

Some might argue that Osama Bin Laden was not a celebrity.  But the concept of celebrity has nothing to do with how well someone is liked.  Fame and infamy are different sides of the same coin. It makes no difference why someone is widely known, as far as the idiom of celebrity is concerned. It only matters that someone is widely known.  Whatever else he was, Osama Bin Laden was an important historical figure.  I mean, there can only be a handful of people in the world whose deaths actually effect world oil prices.  That's fucking crazy when you stop to think about it.  Bin Laden started out as just another terrorist, but eventually became The Terrorist.  Probably much to the chagrin of Bin Laden himself, he became ingrained in the very culture he sought to destroy.  Think about it.  Before Bin Laden, how many people could honestly say they were even aware of an organization called al-Qaeda?  How many of us -outside of foreign correspondants and fans of RAMBO III- knew anything about the Taliban?  Who gave a fuck about Afghanistan or anything going on in the Middle East?  Or for that matter, how many of us could even find Afghanistan on a map?  Until Obama and Bush and their escalating battle for ratings, most of our common knowledge about Saddam Hussein (who somehow got into this whole thing) came from HOT SHOTS! PART DEUX.  Now Osama Bin Laden is such a culturally loaded icon that mentioning his name brings with it a whole slew of concepts and terminology as richly layered as a chocolate cake.

This, we can only assume, was not his intent.  As a "terrorist" we must assume that his goal was to inspire terror, and perhaps even a step further, that he and his regime specifically be associated with that terror, especially in America.  What happened next neither Osama nor anybody else could predict.  President Bush actually got in on the fun and added to Bin Laden's mythology.  First with his conveniently ambiguous War on Terror, which would allow Bush and his administration to justify all kinds of extended military missions around the world with no clearly defined goals or "win conditions" for whatever reason (oil, money or both) El Presidente deemed right.  I suppose in theory the primary target after 9/11 was always assumed to be Osama Bin Laden, but then it gave Bush and company the excuse to go after Saddam Hussein who... had absolutely no proven link at all to the terrorist attacks on September 11.  I guess Bush just wanted some more friends to play with.  Some more names of great villains he had to slay in his own twisted Twelve Labours.  I suppose the bigger and more numerous the evil creatures to be slain, the bigger and more renowned the Hero.  And with something as ambiguous as the War on Terror, a self-proclaimed Hero could find villains to fight indefinitely.

But as it turned out Bush -and after him Barack Obama- wouldn't need to look for a new villain for quite some time because Osama Bin Laden (unfortunately) was living up to his legend.  And so the only reasonable response from the American and Western media was to inflate his legend to even more ridiculous proportions.  If not, then this crackpot terrorist and his band of misfits was singlehandedly defying the richest, most powerful country in the world and all of her friends in a way that would make Castro cream his pants.  So there are only two ways to go: either Osama and members of the al-Qaeda are represented as really fucking lucky, or else they are vilified even further to the point of being unhuman.  Creatures of epic proportions.  Evil Titans who were worthy opponents for our own pantheon.  Let's hope it's the luck thing, because the alternative is truly too terrible to consider.

But if you look at Osama Bin Laden's death, it doesn't bode well for us in the West.  Because al-Qaeda has had America and Friends by the balls for so long, and because Osama the Idea was so much a different entity than Osama the Man, at best all those Navy SEALs could have killed was the Man.  Bush, and after him Obama, were so concerned about killing Osama Bin Laden, that it seemed like his death would somehow fundamentally alter the entire course of world history.  But it hasn't really changed anything.  I mean, in WWII when we got Hitler (or he got himself, or aliens got him, or whatever the fuck it was) and we had those Nazi bastards on the run, it was all leading somewhere.  There was a sense of accomplishments, of victory.  But everything Osama stood for, everything he built, is still in place, and one of the only things we've managed to do is send a lot of our own soldiers halfway around the world to their deaths.  Now at worst Osama and his buddies look lucky in holding out so long against The World Superpower, and at best the Allied governments look incompetent and indecisive.      

Which brings us to Bush's other main addition to the Osama Legend, that mighty Excalibur known as The Patriot Act, which the Bush administration pulled right from its own asshole.  Possibly the greatest violation of civil rights in the Western world since white folks started bringing back black slaves from Africa hundreds of years ago to Europe and America.  The best part about The Patriot Act -besides the seemingly blind obedience of the American people as they had their civil rights raped right in front of them- was... no, wait.  That was it.  I'm still surprised that the American people didn't launch a large scale revolution against the Bush administration, rip apart their government officials limb from limb and display their heads on poles for all the world to see.  It boggles my mind.  But I suppose on a larger scale it made sense.  For the Americans it had to make sense.  They had to believe that with bad guys of epic proportions like Osama Bin Laden out there that there were good guys of equally legendary dimensions.  They had to believe that The Patriot Act would help defeat those terrorists, because what other choice did they have?  They were caught between a rock and a hard place.  If they railed against their own government and brought it down from the inside then by default all Terrorists everywhere would have theoretically -or at least in the framework of this particular myth- won.  Especially Osama Bin Laden.  Plus from a narrative standpoint, The Patriot Act was really meaty stuff.  An entire nation banding together, making sacrifices (in this case of their civil liberties) for the Greater Good.  The government enacts these Draconian measures, and the masses dutifully and stoically agree to stand strong together as a nation against any and all Agents of Terror.  Indeed, this mentality seemed to help a lot of Americans cope with the whole situation, the only real exception being anybody who wore a turban who all of the sudden became automatically associated with terrorism.  But if you've got nothing to hide you've got nothing to fear, right?  A-hem. 

The really strange thing about the American -and indeed the Western- approach to our New Mythology is that its entire goal seems to be not to build up but to tear down.  Unlike other narratives in other cultures, the one we've been intent on constructing seems to be for the sole purpose of making ourselves feel worse not better.  We've become a culture that seems to thrive on perpetuating fear.  The Patriot Act was fear mongering at its finest.  But the masses seem to love it.  I really can't figure out how being socially programmed to believe that there are terrorists hiding around every corner is somehow beneficial to the well-being of the citizens of the state.  Maybe it's that same adrenaline rush that we get from watching horror movies.  Or maybe it makes people feel like their lives are more exciting and more significant than they really are.  Or maybe it's just because they were given something or someone to hate that people felt more purpose in their lives.  We do love to hate.

And that's really where these uncomfortable feelings deep in the bowels of my soul came from.  As I watched the newscasts of Osama Death Parties, and President Obama grinning ear to ear as he delivered the news of Bin Laden's death, it all seemed so unhealthy some how.  Then it hit me: what I was seeing was a strange sort of blood lust usually reserved for soccer fans.  It was really fucking scary.  What I was witnessing was a bizarre sort of primeval ritual.  It was a celebration of death.  The media was broadcasting joy derived from death.  I know that Osama Bin Laden was not a nice person, and he did some terrible shit, but it just seemed like people were celebrating for all the wrong reasons.  Osama Bin Laden's death was largely metaphorical.  The practicalities of the fighting for the soldiers in Afghanistan didn't change.  Afghnistan as a nation wasn't any closer to becoming a democracy.  And as far as I know right now, America isn't anywhere near done sending it's young men and women off to die in some foreign land for no good goddamn reason.

The other thought I had after hearing the details of Osama Bin Laden's death was that it was all a bunch of bullshit.  It could be that I've spent too much time listening to my brother Christopher's conspiracy theories about how the American government faked the moon landing, but something just didn't sit right with me about Bin Laden's death.  It seemed so convenient and contrived.  All of the sudden a bunch of navy SEALs show up at Osama's secret hideout in Pakistan, where he's apparently been hiding in his compound in almost plain sight for the last ten years, shoot the fuck out of him, then have an impromptu burial at sea so there's no evidence of a body at all.  Is it possible that Osama is still alive and his "death" is simply a publicity stunt by the American government in order to garner positive public opinion.  Then my brain took it one step further:  what if there never was an Osama Bin Laden?  Or a Saddam Hussein for that matter?  A hired actor, a convincing story, some media coverage, and voila!  You've got yourself a genuine threat to democracy that the people can rally against.  But that's just the ramblings of an overactive imagination.  In all likelihood Bin Laden is dead.  Still, some nights I can't help but wonder...            

Now the whole damn mess has more highly-specialized language than a reality TV show.  War on Terror.  Taliban.  Patriot Act.  Insurgents.  IEDs.  Al-Qaeda.  Roadside bombs.  Guantanamo Bay.  September 11.  Nation building.  The whole thing's almost sexy now.  Sleek.  It's been packaged and fed to the people and now they have their story.  Their mythology.  Their Legend.  They've been given a context in which to understand their own lives on the world stage, and now it's up to the citizens of the West to find their own place in the story.  Add to the narrative.  And the catalyst for the whole deal was Osama Bin Laden.  That's his legacy.  A rather grim legacy given the nature of his heinous crimes, but a legacy that has irrevocably changed the shape of our culture nonetheless.  (Well that, and he helped bring back the beard.)            


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