Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Revenge Narrative and Osama bin Laden

By Barry Johnson

Somehow Arts Dispatch found itself caught in the Osama bin Laden whirlpool, unable to get clear of it enough to rub two thoughts together, either about the raid and the aftermath or much of anything else.

To free this fragile blog from the circularity of its thoughts on the matter, we're counting on a series of short observations and reflections, because a fully integrated essay just seems impossible. Just to be clear about one thing from the beginning: You'll find no sympathy for Osama bin Laden here and no sympathy for his terrorism -- his slaughter of innocents. His demise should have come far earlier.

Hollywood is the primary generator of Revenge Narratives in the popular media. In the summer of 2009, I followed the first couple of months of blockbusters and noticed how many had revenge as a driver -- The X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Star Trek, Terminator Salvation and  Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Revenge is something that every market understands. 

Revenge is so simple and so liberating: If our goal is to eliminate evil (dishing out as much mayhem as possible in the process), then anything is allowable. Once we get into the revenge game, the "logic" of normal human life is replaced by the logic of war, and that particular logic leads to some twisted acts that Hollywood can make very cinematic. 

In Michiko Kakutani's New York Times round-up of books about Bin Laden, I learned that Al Qaeda trainees watched Hollywood thrillers at night, looking for tips. Arnold Schwarzenegger movies were "particular favorites."  

The Revenge Narrative is a black hole.  It swallows all attempts at further illumination. Once we decided that killing Osama bin Laden was the only course, we absolved ourselves of having coherent thought about anything but following the logic of that decision. Nothing else mattered, not even revolutions brewing in a host of Arab countries that had nothing to do with him or Al-Qaeda. We stopped our efforts to understand (illuminate) ObL or the contentious Arab communities that created, supported and sometimes opposed him. We pursued the twisted logic to Iraq and Afghanistan. 

It works the other way, too. Once bin Laden decided that revenge -- and its inevitable consequence, terror -- was the only course, he became blind to the world outside that revenge. In the process he made himself peripheral to the upheaval in Arab countries. And his own twisted logic led to the events of 9/11, which galvanized the world against him, regardless of their sympathy for his issues (the corrupt oligarchies running so many Arab states, using oil money to keep their people pacified).  

So we were locked together in a Dance of Revenge and failed to notice that the music had stopped.  

The cheering students on college campuses were simply embracing the inevitable outcome of the Revenge Narrative, namely, the death of the villain. And I agree with those cultural analysts who argue that they were also cheering their own possibilities of success in a world that seems more and more immune to American power.  

I hate that Bin Laden's code name was "Geronimo." 

Because of the timing, we swiftly transitioned from the Royal Wedding to the Execution of Bin Laden, which on cable TV meant that those Royal Watchers with the plummy Brit accents and speculations about the inner thoughts of the Royal Family were replaced by former generals and intelligence officials with Southwest American accents and speculations about the inner thoughts of Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda and the JSOC team that brought Bin Laden down. Our minds, accustomed to this sort of "channel changing," had no trouble shifting from one to the other.  

Was Osama Bin Laden a celebrity, in our contemporary understanding of the word? Not just a famous villain (Billy the Kid, Jack the Ripper, Vlad the Impaler, Caligula), but a celebrity sharing the same media dynamic as Donald Trump, Charlie Sheen and Lindsay Lohan? We would have a hard time coming up with the names of the President of Prime Minister of Pakistan, but we know a lot about Bin Laden -- he's an instant reference point.  

We did not have to follow the revenge narrative -- wanted dead or alive -- to seek justice for the crimes of Bin Laden. The Revenge Narrative is essentially rhetorical. It signals that we are resorting to "extreme measures" in this particular case. We will not be going by the usual rules. 

Paradoxically, the Revenge Narrative is employed to preserve the usual rules. The usual rules protect humans from torture, from becoming innocent victims and from a variety of other abuses, which are part and parcel of the logic of extreme measures. 

In the Revenge Narrative, the details of the villain's demise are infinitely important. I suspect the original account of bin Laden's death -- using a wife as a shield while he emptied his AK-47 on the Navy Seals -- defaulted to the Hollywood position. Now, we spend our time debating how close he was to his weapons, the release of photographs of his body and his burial at sea. None of these is important outside the logic of the revenge narrative. 

Is the single-mindedness of revenge a biological adaptation?  A form of self-sacrifice for the group? Does that make us susceptible to using it when another approach would be better and to manipulators who employ it for their own purposes?

Although the Osama bin Laden killing followed the lines of the Revenge Narrative, did it also follow the logic of the bureaucracy? After all, a bureaucracy hunted him down, with the implacability that bureaucracies routinely muster.  

If ObL had been captured, the Narrative of the Show Trial would likely have been no more illuminating than the Revenge Narrative.

Just to be clear again, I am not arguing "for" Osama bin Laden. He helped murder many innocent people and would have tried to murder more.  Stopping him was important.

We made sense of 9/11 in a way that led us into expensive and bloody conflicts, following the logic of revenge. I think our cultural reflex (if not a biological reflex) supported this course.  By now, I hope we see that the course we chose was not optimal and that we need to question this reflex in the future. We spent 10 years closely engaged with the Islamic world, and it seems apparent now -- after Cairo and Tunis and Benghazi -- that we know less about it now than when we started tracking bin Laden. We are blind to the cultural currents that bin Laden reflected and exploited and so blind to the way they are expressing themselves right now. This price for bin Laden's execution is too high, and it impeded our hunt for him. And unfortunately, it doesn't leave us better positioned to affect the Middle East in a positive way.

I have admired the way President Obama has handled his part of the narrative. In that, I find some hope for a more pragmatic approach to foreign policy, one tied to our democracy, which has always been to my mind a great experiment in pragmatism. But only some hope -- our foreign policy in the Middle East is almost never about our democracy, the pragmatism of people working together, and almost always about the power of special interests and their ability to subvert that democracy. One president cannot change that anymore than he or she can change our weakness for the Revenge Narrative.


PDXsays said...

Revenge is not a factor of justice in a Democracy> Deterrence is.

And even though many Americas have been doing the "Neutron Dance" (KaChing- Pointer Sisters reference) of destruction, Revenge should never be the basis for America the Country's actions. Nor was it this time.

Why wasn't ObL brought to the Bar for his day in court? Because some criminals are "dead-or-alive." And military and civil law enforcement have discretion in determining the factors in those situations.

This was not a case of needing to determine level of involvement or reviewing justification of criminal actions or intent.

And while I wish that we were more evolved to be able to bring forth deterrence with more humanity, fact remains we don't have the technology not to risk even more suffering far Innocents and Enforcers of Law.

Michael said...

The Hollywood tips tidbit is especially arresting.

You don't like Geronimo because of the implied historical equivalence?

Barry Johnson said...

Michael, What I hate about it is that I FEAR that we were making them equivalent -- meaning that a similar cultural blindness was at work in both cases. Why didn't they call him "Robert E. Lee" or "Al Capone" or someone like that? Nope, they went right for the Native American.

PDXsays, we disagree -- I think revenge had a lot to do with it. But then I don't think the U.S. is particularly "democratic" at this point. I'm not arguing that Bin Laden didn't "deserve" his fate. I'm arguing that the course we took turned out to be ruinous for lots of people in many ways, and seriously damaged the democracy itself in the process.

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