On Death, Conspiracy Theories, and Wars on Concepts.
So Osama bin Laden is dead. When I first heard this, my reaction was “So what? Game of Thrones is on.” Clearly not everyone shared my apathy, and I really don’t understand why.
Reactions are so jubilant, like a long period of hardship was ending. This wasn’t rain after a drought, slaying the Beast of Gévaudan, or peace after a long war. He was just a man, a leader of a relatively small group of religious extremists, mostly retired by last year.
But if the man’s death brought me no emotion, watching the world react to it certainly did. Watching a seething mass of people outside the White House celebrating a man’s death seemed so surreal to me. There was something barbaric about it; I honestly think that if his body had been dragged through Washington D.C. behind a horse and his head mounted on a spike over the White House gates the crowd would have cheered all the harder. It took me a while to understand that to them he wasn’t a man, and never had been. He was the bogeyman, the monster under the bed, the shadow of evil that brought down skyscrapers in fire and blood. I think his death, to many, represents the death of fear, the comforting safety of knowing the monster isn’t there. The quiet dawn after a terrifying stormy night.
Thing is, it’s really meaningless. This wasn’t defense, bin Laden was little threat by himself and in fact is far more dangerous now as he becomes a martyr. It wasn’t breaking up a terrorist cell or a dangerous radical group, his organization still exists and is no less a threat with him dead. It wasn’t justice, Osama bin Laden never faced a trial. It wasn’t the end to a war, depending on your definition we have any number from zero to at least a half-dozen wars going on right now and this hasn’t changed.
As a symbol of revenge, perhaps; that I can understand, at least a little.
One of the curious quotes I saw last night was, to paraphrase “Bin Laden’s death a blow to terrorist organizations worldwide.” I don’t recall who said that and I really don’t feel like digging through Twitter to find it again, but I cannot think of a way that this is true. The strength of terrorist tactics, as well as the closely-related-but-don’t-say-that-to-their-faces resistance & guerrilla tactics, is that a small independent group can cause disproportionate damage to their enemy. To most terrorist groups, even Islamic ones, this death means nothing. To the few who care this will be a blow to morale that will probably be met with retribution. The wheel turns, the faces change, but the motion remains the same.
(Another curious quote was that his body was “taken to Afghanistan and then buried at sea”. Which must have been a contraction for the sake of Twitter’s character limit intended to mean “taken to Afghanistan for identification, and then later moved elsewhere and buried at sea”, but it had me scratching my head for a bit.)
The conspiracy theorist in me wants to spin a tale of him still alive, playing poker on the Moon with Tupac and Elvis. But how’s this for a conspiracy theory? Osama bin Laden was trained and equipped by the CIA. He was a useful asset for some time, until he became more valuable as an enemy. That was fine for a while, he provided useful excuses for various actions, perhaps at a higher cost in lives than expected, but certainly effective at getting the laws passed and the wars started and keeping the military contracts moving money to the right people. But time passed and the deaths and costs added up and public support waned again. What was needed was a big symbolic act, something that would both rally people behind the flag again, and provide impetus for those scary terr’rists to do something to put the fear back into the voting public. So Osama bin Laden became more useful as a martyr. A tool from start to finish.
The awful thing about a War on Terror or War on Drugs or any War on Concept is that there’s no specific enemy and no clear way to end it. In fact, it’s really not a war at all. It’s fine as a metaphor, a shorthand to explain policy. You run into trouble when you start treating it as an actual war. As an example take PFC Bradley Manning, who is being fucking tortured as he awaits his trial for various charges including treason. Treason is generally defined as giving aid to the enemy but in this conceptual war who is the enemy? Is there a list, somewhere? If so presumably either Wikileaks or the general public is on it.
How does a war like that end?
It’s late, and I’m tired. Somewhere in the last two paragraphs I lost the thread I’d meant to follow, I never did learn to make an outline. Also, much as I hate uploading late at night when people won’t see the announcements, I used the phrase “last night” so I want it done before midnight. On the bright side I started this owing 2,700 words, and I’ve made a good dent in that. Now I’m going to watch an episode of SG-1 and then to bed.