Notes From the Margins…

Osama bin Laden: the Western

  • January 16, 2013
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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.




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  1. Nik H.

    17th Jan 2013 - 6:12 pm

    After Bigelow’s idiotic Hurtlocker movie I didn’t expect anything else from such a pathetic (propaganda) “director”.

    The U.S. government on the other hand should probably award her the Knight’s Cross with Oaks Leaves, Swords and Diamonds for making a perfect case for torture. Thus if you ask me the whole pseudo-drama about how torture didn’t play in any part in tracking down OBL is just a charade. I bet my non-existant assault rifle that inspite of silly denials/statements by McCain et al. the U.S. government is more than happy with that movie and especially it’s effect on the american people.

    The plot is perfect: 9/11 soundbites -> Sexy CIA-lass & tough men -> torture -> info -> Bullseye. Mission oh so accomplished. Veit Harlan, director of Kolberg, and the Reichsminister für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda, Herr Goebbels, would have been proud of Kath.

    The folks involved in this movie said again and again in various interviews how great and brave it is that Bigelow had no qualms about showing the harsh realities of the “war on terror”, and how this is simply a depiction, yes almost documentary-like, of what had happened.

    Real bravery looks different though: How about a movie which tells the story of Khalid El-Masri who snatched from the streets of Macedonia in 2003, tortured and sodomised in Afghanistan and eventually dumped on an albanian street a few months later. How about that story? Whith this plot I wouldn’t even mind the 9/11 soundbites, gosh, Bigelow could also dig deep into the various oh so enhanced techniques that were applied to this innocent german citizen.

    While El-Masri only recently received at least a tiny bit of symbolic justice the number of people with similar stories who had to endure american-western freedom is endless.

    Deepa Kumar is spot on by pointing out what can be done to brown men. Let us just remember the “exploits” of the PIRA, arguably the most professional, dedicated and thus dangerous resistance/terror-groups of the 20th century. Soldiers, civilians, diplomats, primeministers, members of the royal family – you name it, no one was spared by IRA and later PIRA et al. operations. My god they even fired a heavy granade launcher salvo into 10 Downing Street where John Major and his war cabinet were having tea and discussing Iraq-war no. 1. and which send them under their tables.

    The “five techniques”-episode showed quite clearly that “special” techniques applied to white (christian) men won’t be tolerated for too long. I am not saying that beatings and injustices didn’t occur after 1978 (and it also has to be said that the ECHR only talked about inhumane and degrading treatment of republican prisoners), still it is quite clear that “rough stuff” is reserved for the “brown folks”. Probably another version of the white man’s burden, since the civilised west only reluctantly resorts such methods – with a broken and heavy heart of course.

    PS: Here’s quite a good Al Jazeera discussion on torture and Zero Dark Whatever

    • Matt

      18th Jan 2013 - 10:54 am

      Thanks for this Nik. I absolutely agree with what you say about the al-Masri case. Making a film about that wouldn’t be nearly so glamorous, and definitely wouldn’t take you into the Oscar zone. I thought something similar about Ben Afleck’s Argo – not a bad film in itself, if you disregard the general portrayal of Iranians as barbaric members of a giant mob. But when can we expect to see a film about Reagan’s ‘ October Surprise’ or Contragate? The answer is never.

      And don’t worry about the typos – you’re talking to a man who wrote a piece on DW Griffith, in which he called him WG Griffiths…

  2. Nik H.

    18th Jan 2013 - 9:58 am

    Sorry for the typos btw. :-/

  3. Nik H.

    18th Jan 2013 - 11:56 am

    Ouch on Griffith/Griffiths 🙂

    So you’re saying Argo is quite ok? Guess I’ll have to “acquire” it at some point then. Ever since that dreadful Pearl Harbor movie with Ben Afleck I tried as hard as possible to avoid anything that involved that guy. When I heard that he was to direct a movie about such a topic I was 100% sure that it would be painful to watch. So at least I am happy to hear he managed to depict the Iranians in a way I would expect from people like him, otherwise I would seriously have to reconsider my opinion about that guy 🙂

    When it comes to U.S. directors with integrity and a capability of critical thinking the only one that comes to my mind is Oliver Stone. By the way, you might be interested in his latest project “The Untold History of the United States”. It is a multi-part series which covers U.S. history beginning with WW2 and is actually quite recommendable. As far as I know it is still in process of being aired thus it might take a while till all parts are uploaded. Since you mentioned Reagen I have to tell you that I am really looking forward to how this criminal era will be dealt with by Stone.

    It can be watched on youtube, at least for now, enjoy:

    • Matt

      18th Jan 2013 - 12:02 pm

      No I wouldn’t say it’s ok. I did like Gone Baby Gone, but I had to see Argo, in order to get out of the house for my daughter’s teenage party. It’s such a bizarre and astonishing story that you can’t really fail to make a reasonably engrossing movie about it. That said, I couldn’t help being wondering why Hollywood feels the need to make a film portraying pretty much all Iranians as devious orientals/bloodthirsty and irrational despots etc, and Americans as victims, at a time when Iran has been looming ever larger in the West’s cross-sights.

  4. Nik H.

    18th Jan 2013 - 12:15 pm

    I hope your home was still intact when you came home!

    I detected some irony in what you said about Hollywood and the Iranians… 🙂

    Though not Arabs this book pretty much applies to Hollywood’s dealing with anything “oriental”:
    Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (available on amazon)

    Sorry for yet another link, but there’s also an excellent documentary based on that book which is highly highly recommendable:

    • Matt

      18th Jan 2013 - 12:21 pm

      It was…sort of. I’ve read Reel Bad Arabs – it’s a great book, but I don’t know this doc. Will check it out, as well as the other one you sent me.

  5. Mike

    19th Jan 2013 - 11:46 am

    Hi guys, Inspired by your interesting exchange about zero dark something (which I haven’t seen), I would like to mention a new Danish film that will be coming your way sooner or later directed by Thomas Vinterberg (the man who made “Festen”, the celebration). His latest epic is about the “semi-lynching” of a man falsely accused of abusing a child in a kindergarten. As I watched the film I thought of how lies have piled up in the mouths of western politicians in the past decade or so, to justify extreme violence against thousands of more or less innocent people around the planet. Keep your eyes open for “Jagten” (the hunt) when it comes to a cine in your district! Ciao, Mike

    • Matt

      21st Jan 2013 - 9:17 am

      I’ve heard about this. It does sound good.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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