Osama bin Laden: the Western
- January 16, 2013
There is a superb critique on the Mondeweiss website of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty by Deepa Kumar. Previous criticisms of the film have concentrated on Bigelow and her scriptwriter Mark Boal’s promotion of torture in its account of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and its uncritical reliance on CIA sources. Kumar raises another crucial question that has been largely ignored in the ongoing controversy over the film’s historical accuracy and the morality of torture; namely, its unproblematic acceptance of extra-judicial killing:
The film teaches us that brown men can and should be targeted and killed with impunity, in violation of international law, and that we should trust the CIA to act with all due diligence. At a time when the key strategy in the ‘war on terror’ has shifted from conventional warfare to extra judicial killing, here comes a film that normalizes and justifies this strategy.
She goes on to argue
It is a clever and strategic choice that the resolution of the film’s narrative arc is the execution of Osama bin Laden. After all, who could possibly object to the murder of this heinous person other than the ‘do good’ lawyers who are chastised in the film for providing legal representation for terrorists.
Here then is the key message of the film: the law, due process, and the idea of presenting evidence before a jury, should be dispensed with in favor of extra judicial killings. Further, such killings can take place without public oversight.
This ‘message’ is unlikely to be as problematic to many of the film’s viewers as it is for her. The execution of bin Laden was the most high-profile product of a strategy of secret state killing of ‘terrorists’ or ‘militants’ adopted by the Bush administration after 9/11, which has been continued by its successors.
In a review of No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama bin Laden, in the New York Review of Books, the historian Steve Coll pointed out that American officials “have made false, confusing, and incomplete public statements about what, exactly, happened at Abbottabad” and also “dissembled about how Operation Neptune Spear, as the raid was named, planned for the possibility that bin Laden might be taken alive and put on trial”.
According to Coll, the SEALS hit team that killed bin Laden was not explicitly told to kill him, but was given rules of engagement that made his surrender “all but impossible”. These orders, he suggests, were in accordance with a principle adopted by the Obama administration that “killing is better than capture” and a “terrorist-targeting and detention system” that Coll describes as “heavily biased toward killing, inconsonant with constitutional and democratic principles, and unsustainable”.
These procedures did not trouble the American public, which reacted to news of bin Laden’s execution on 2 May, 2011 as if it were a momentous military victory.
For many Americans, the killing provided a dramatically satisfying conclusion to the ‘narrative arc’ of the ‘war on terror’ that began in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, when bin Laden was variously imagined as the Old Man of the Mountains, unleashing evil and destruction from the lawless mountains of Afghanistan; as an Islamist Doctor No or Ernst Stavro Blofeld, coordinating a global network of evil from fortified caves in the Tora Bora mountains.
Other representations drew heavily on an American tendency to imagine the world as if it were a Western. Where Ronald Reagan once warned terrorists that “you can run but you can’t hide”, George Bush promised to “smoke out” bin Laden and bring him back “dead or alive”. Seen through this prism, Bin Laden was part-outlaw, part-renegade ‘Indian’, who the forces of law and order were obliged to hunt down in the wilderness in order to administer retributive justice. Thus Cofer Black, director of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, told CIA operatives heading for Afghanistan in 2001:
“I don’t want bin Laden and his thugs captured, I want them dead. Alive and in prison here in the United States, they”ll become a symbol, a rallying point for other terrorists. They must be killed. I want to see photos of their heads on pikes. I want bin Laden”s head shipped back in a box filled with dry ice. I want to be able to show bin Laden’s head to the president. I promised him I would do that.”
As we know, the posse failed to get their man in the first instance, and the ‘war on terror’ went on to form new tributaries of violence, frequently using al Qaeda as a pretext, while bin Laden played a largely symbolic role in the global jihad that was largely limited to strategically-placed video tapes proclaiming his ‘messages to the world’.
After nearly a decade of bloody, chaotic and barely comprehensible wars that had failed to produce any tangible benefits or achievements that could be demonstrated to the American public, the killing of an old man in his pyjamas nevertheless provided the nearest thing to ‘victory’ that the world’s only superpower had to offer, and seemed to reaffirm a sense of the implacability and efficiency of American power that was singularly absent from the disastrous wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. As Hilary Clinton put it at the time
“I know there are some who doubted this day would ever come, who questioned our resolve and our reach. But let us remind ourselves, this is America. We rise to the challenge, we persevere, and we get the job done.”
After years of death and failure, many Americans were all too willing to accept this uplifting take on the Abottabad hit. Few were prepared to ask what bin Laden was doing hiding out in the very heart of the Pakistani military establishment, even though its government was a nominal ally of the United States; or why he was killed when he could have been captured and put on trial; or why the Obama administration released so many contradictory and false statements about his execution, even though its leading officials apparently had a video ringside seat on the whole process.
Fewer still were prepared to look back at the disastrously opportunist response of the Bush administration to these attacks, and ask why the various wars launched under the rubric of the ‘war on terror’ had really been fought, or what bin Laden might have said if he had appeared before a jury.
Such questions are uncomfortable, messy and complicated. The bullets in bin Laden’s head, on the other hand, offered a pleasing closure, like a gunfight or a frontier lynching, which enabled the good townsfolk to sleep at night in the belief that justice had been done, that good had vanquished evil, that the violence of the previous decade must have been for something.
Bigelow and her scriptwriter seem to believe the same thing. And they will probably get an Oscar for their efforts.