Killing a bearded phantom
‘We’ve been chasing this ghost bin Laden around Afghanistan and Iraq and Pakistan and Yemen and everywhere else, and finally we can bring back—bring our troops home.’
—Jake Diliberto, U.S. Marine Corps veteran:
There’s something howling and ghoulish about the whole business.
The designation of Osama bin Laden as public enemy number one for the past decade (his six-page New York Times obituary was titled ‘The Most Wanted Face of Terrorism,’ my emphasis), the extrajudicial killing with shots possibly fired in his face (early reports suggest two, as if one per eyehole), the ritualized and mediated forms of raucous carnivalization that followed it, the morbid sea burial.
Many figured that Bin Laden had enjoyed a premature burial when George W. Bush famously (or infamously) declared ‘Mission Accomplished’ on May 1, 2003, on board the USS Abraham Lincoln. President Obama’s abrupt announcement about his killing occurred exactly eight years later, to the day, from that speech. Yes, it’s downright ghostly.
The night before the great reveal, I happened to be at an orchestral concert featuring John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls, a ‘memory space’ composed in honor of the victims of the attacks on September 11, 2001. The prerecorded verbal refrain that repeated in the composition was, ‘Missing… missing.’ Shortly after Obama’s announcement, Greg Mitchell noted the non-existent memorial at the site of the attacks: ‘Still no memorial there. Will many note the disgrace?’ With bin Laden’s detritus presumably at sea and the 9/11 New York victims (nevermind the victims of other horrors, including the U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania) without a symbolic burial ground, the gravity of phantasmal demise was mostly met with celebration. It began to appear that the dominant response from the U.S. was gaiety in lieu of solemn remembrance.
Arguably the most important dispenser of giddy mirth at the U.S.’ political foibles is Jon Stewart. (I don’t watch the show unless forced, as was the case on the night of May 2.) Stewart admitted he was ‘too close to this whole episode to be rational about this in any way shape or form… it was a good night for human people.’ The capture/killing of bin Laden did not warrant a sane response because it was too great a victory for Human People, and Stewart performed as he promised.
The show began with Stewart declaring that Bin Laden ‘pussed out’ of appearing on the show himself (to the hooting delight of his audience), and ended with an animated graphic in which a piece of the southern United States breaks off, forms an erect penis and fires toward the Middle East.
Stewart was anything but inexact about the details of Obama’s announcement, declaring that it fell on precisely ’11:35 p.m. Eastern Justice Time.’
The opening segment (embedded at the bottom of this post) is intense, even by Stewart’s usual jabbing standards. I had to take a break once or twice, and someone wrote me a private message that it brought tears to their eyes.
I point to a brief collection of screen grabs that encode the enemy as Muslim monstrous, the bearded and turbaned appearance a site of generalized ridicule and disgust even in afterlife.
‘We shot out [Bin Laden's] eyes and now he lives under a pineapple under the sea.’
Bye Bye Birdie.
Stewart echoed the lividness of mainstream anchors (the ones from which he is purportedly distinct): ‘He was living in some staid and upscale Pakistani suburb when we got him. This guy’s out there preaching suicide bombings and jihad, pretending he’s [Tolkien's] Gandalf wandering the frontier, all the while living like one of the Housewives of Orange County.’ Stewart performed the usual routine of punking his subject, only obscuring the irony that everyone else got punked by the reality that Osama Bin Laden, veritable millionaire, was not hiding in a cave in Tora Bora but in an affluent Pakistani suburb.
My ‘favorite’ among the Osama avatars was the Extremist Home Makeover, in which Stewart’s writers overlay targeted cross-hairs over Bin Laden’s face with the image of a mosque, even though bin Laden has never been (to my knowledge) filmed in or near a mosque, and was found in a residential compound.
But the most damaging effect of this discourse of an encoded enemy, beyond the fact that it was watched (and perhaps cheered) by millions, is the jarringly limited options it envisions for Arabs, Muslims, and those perceived to be dressed like them. Stewart’s pithy observation on the meaning of bin Laden and the Middle East is perceptive, but not for the reasons he intends: ‘The face of the Arab world in America’s eyes for too long has been Bin Laden and now it is not. Now the face is only the young people in Egypt and Tunisia…’ In his latest column Thomas Friedman (never one to champion the agency of Middle Eastern peoples) draws the same conclusion:
We did our part. We killed Bin Laden with a bullet. Now the Arab and Muslim people have a chance to do their part — kill Bin Ladenism with a ballot — that is, with real elections, with real constitutions, real political parties and real progressive politics.
It seems that not only are you either with us or against us, but you are either a democracy activist pursuing ‘our’ liberal values of governance or you’re the Big Deady rotting at the bottom of a cartoon ocean.
But even yesterday’s heroes can become tomorrow’s bandits. In ‘The Mythos of Obama and Osama,’ Larbi Sadiki writes:
Only very recently, Obama had to defend his ‘American-ness’ to doubters, and very recently his birth in response to Donald Trump.
When ‘Holy War’ was championed in Reagan’s war-by-proxy against the former Soviets in the killing fields of Afghanistan, Osama was proudly embraced as a Saudi hero.
Post 9/11, he was disowned, and his Yemeni lineage marked a new discourse aimed at re-inventing, or re-writing, bin Laden’s identity.
Both men sought to breathe life into their respective Galateas. For Obama, his core principles are a mix of left and right, centrism and progressivism, laced with liberalism.
Osama’s Galatea is a sculpture whose ivory is an eschatology and exegesis plated with a Salafi-Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.
Arab revolutions erupted and triumphed in Tunisia and Egypt, partly burying Osama’s Galatea. To an extent, they demonstrated in a vivid way that the ‘abode of Islam’ is not blood-thirsty but freedom-thirsty.
But now Osama lays a soulless body, a trophy, already being paraded as a symbol of a hollow victory. Another body amid the countless fatalities in a senseless hubris and duel in which there are no innocents.
Further, many have noted how the wild, wild ‘West’ and the war on Islam terror are superimposed. There was no more visceral demonstration of that than in these defacements of the Maine Muslims Community Center in Portland, Maine, tagged on the night of May 1. Note the synecdoche of Osama – Islam – The West:
There was no more feared hero-bandit than the Apache tribal leader Geronimo, whose name easily glided as a U.S. military cryptonym for bin Laden. The embedded codes that marked native Americans fighting an occupying power have not only been resurrected in the global ‘War on Terror,’ but they are used as camouflage for the new, bearded enemy.
The Onondaga Nation released a statement on May 3:
‘We’ve ID’d Geronimo’ – 102 years after his death Geronimo is still being killed by U.S. Forces.
This is a sad commentary on the attitude of leaders of the U.S. military forces that continue to personify the original peoples of North America as enemies and savages. The use of the name Geronimo as a code name for Osama Bin Laden is reprehensible. Think of the outcry if they had used any other ethnic group’s hero. Geronimo bravely and heroically defended his homeland and his people, eventually surrendering and living out the rest of his days peacefully, if in captivity, passing away at Fort Sill, Oklahoma in 1909. To compare him to Osama Bin Laden is illogical and insulting. The name Geronimo is arguably the most recognized Native American name in the world, and this comparison only serves to perpetuate negative stereotypes about our peoples. The U.S. military leadership should have known better.
The Apache Tribe released an open letter to President Obama on the same day, asking for a formal apology:
We are quite certain that the use of the name Geronimo as a code for Osama bin Laden was based on misunderstood and misconceived historical perspectives of Geronimo and his armed struggle against the United States and Mexican governments. However to equate Geronimo or any other Native American figure with Osama bin Laden, a mass murderer and cowardly terrorist, is painful and offensive to our Tribe and to all native Americans.
Geronimo was a renowned Chiricahua Apache leader who personally fought to defend his people, territory and way of life. Unlike the coward Osama bin Laden, Geronimo faced his enemy in numerous battles and engagements. He is perhaps one of the greatest symbols of Native American resistance in the history of the United States.
What this action has done is forever link the name and memory of Geronimo to one of the most despicable enemies this Country has ever had.
(For more American West/Geronimo-related links, see zunguzungu’s round-up, as well as Stephen W. Silliman’s 2008 piece in American Anthropologist, ‘The “Old West” in the Middle East: U.S. Military Metaphors in Real and Imagined Indian Country.’)
The day after this segment aired, Stewart himself said: ‘I’ll admit, yesterday’s show was id-driven, animalistic, almost tribal, catharsis-fueled vomotimus.’
(All screen grabs of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart taken by South/South. Photos of the Maine mosque taken by Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald.)
[Update: This post was referenced on Threadbared, and a provocative interview with between Mimi Thi Nguyen and Junaid Rana follows there.]