May 9, 2011
Wanted Dead or Alive: why we should not be quick to rejoice the death of Osama bin Laden
Recently, the news of Osama bin Laden’s death has taken the United States by magnificent surprise and wondrous joy as swarms of Americans crowded the White House gates with their American flags and the President announced the success of the US Navy SEALS mission to storm into a village in Pakistan and to “smoke” bin Laden out of his compound. The mission was filled with intrigue and danger: military helicopters swooshing out of the sky, commandos caught in a deathly crossfire, shooting at America’s Most Wanted, killing one of his wives in the process, and finally declaring a victory after a decade of war and destruction in the region. An adrenaline-rush of American hypermasculinity on display, as the raid team penetrated the town where bin Laden was staying in, Abbottabad, Pakistan. But it is not just a show of macho military might. It is also the elevation of the masculinity of our soft-spoken and diplomatic President. As one BBC commentator has noted, this has elevated Obama’s status from “wimp” to “warrior”. This has also significantly improved the President’s ratings (15% increase among the Republicans in fact) and has given a sense of relief and justice to many families of victims of 9/11 attacks. In short, the death of Osama bin Laden has returned the President to the status of a “man”, the United States to the status of world leader and savior, and the American people to the status of self-righteous sense of entitlement and justice. Everybody’s happy.
Sunday night, I was enjoying a nice hot cup of tea with my family members around a pit-fire when I received a text from a friend simply stating, “We killed Osama bin Laden!” At first, I thought it was a drunken joke. But then I received a similar message from a friend in D.C. celebrating in front of the White House. I quickly checked the online news and informed my family of the development. Everyone was obviously surprised. However, after 15 minutes of trying to figure out what had actually happened, we went back to our usual discussions. I, however, tried to follow the news online as the days went on. One of the articles that caught my eye was one on BBC explaining how the code name for bin Laden was, in fact, Geronimo. The name is derived from a 19th century Apache warrior who fought against white North American and Spaniard soldiers, to resist white supremacist efforts of Westward expansion and to preserve Native Americans’ lands and way of life. According to the BBC article, “[Geronimo’s] struggle to resist the white Americans has led to him being depicted in a sympathetic light by many cultural historians.”
It is, therefore, no surprise that many Native Americans are upset by the use of the name Geronimo as a code word for bin Laden. To associate a great warrior in their history with a ‘known’ terrorist merely perpetuates negative stereotypes about indigenous peoples and “undermines the military service of native people.” To me, their sentiments of outrage make sense, are warranted, and should be taken seriously. However, I cannot help but to analyze the situation from a different perspective. It make sense to me that the code name for bin Laden would be Geronimo. Indeed, the projects of white supremacy, racism, westward expansion and ‘Manifest Destiny’ have not stopped in the deserts of the Wild West.
Nobody knows why the code name Geronimo was chosen in the first place. However, we should not be surprised by its appearance. Indeed after the attacks of 9/11, a lot of the rhetoric of the fight against terrorism and against bin Laden, such as “wanted dead or alive”, remind us of the old Hollywood Westerns: white dudes with rifles going into uncharted territory (usually deserts) to “smoke out” those “savages”. Of course in the movies, the white dudes with rifles are the good guys. Just like how US’s presence in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq is seen as the ultimate battle between the nation of “progressiveness, democracy, human rights, civilization, good” and the culture of “backwardness, dictatorship, barbarism, savagery, evil.” It is Us v. Axis of Evil. It is our objective and impeccable justice system v. shariaa law. It is our women running for president v. women wearing burkas and staying at home. It is Manifest Destiny Version 21. We have heard this same rhetoric many times during Colonialism and the “white man’s burden”. In our history, we have very rarely allowed the possibility that people of color and people from the Global South have agency, can determine their own paths, can fight for their own rights, and can provide for their own livelihood and happiness. Nevermind that decades of colonialism, pillage, militaristic occupation, and neo-liberal economic policies have left the Global South the unhappy short end of the deal. Nevermind the lack of education, development and opportunities in those countries. Our yardstick for determining “progressiveness” has been how well a nation treats its women/gays/minorities. It is a new Imperialism of tolerant, “multicultural” diversity, because our state has never treated its women/gays/minorities poorly. And should a nation fail to meet the requirements, the United States military (and allied nations) will descend upon it in all of its hypermasculine might and throw the torch of enlightenment into the Heart of Darkness. Colonel Kurtz-style. The irony as always lies in the fact that in our rhetoric of ‘liberation’ we are using the state and the military, two sexist and homophobic institutions, to push forward an agenda of equality and freedom. Naturally then, we are at ease to ignore the violence that emanates from these institutions as we support them to be our protectors against the monstrous Others.
In the War on Terror, we constantly tell ourselves “those people hate us”, but we are never to blame for that hatred. We are logical, humanitarian, and right. They are irrational, monstrous and evil. This is the basis for the new Eastward Expansion. Yes, we are fighting terrorism. Yes, we are getting rid of dictators. And we are doing all of that by murdering innocent people, destroying entire towns and villages, illegally detaining people in Guantánamo Bay, torturing them in black sites around the world (aka having other countries do the dirty-work for us), and spreading our militaristic influence in the region. Let’s not even consider the trillions of dollars spent in these wars and the outrageous military spending of the United States (which, by the way, is more than the combined military spending of the next 45 highest-spending states, accounting for almost half of the world’s entire military spending).
This is not a question of Osama bin Laden’s crimes, which deserve punishment. But we are quick to forget our own history of racism, imperialism, and militarism in the Middle East and South Asian countries. Since the attacks of 9/11 we have been given many reasons for invading Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Actually, I take that back. We didn’t really give a reason for rolling our tanks into Pakistan, nor did we ask for permission when sending troops into the territories of a sovereign state. Practically everything is justified in the War on Terror. Branding Islamist fighters as “illegal combatants” under international law covers our legal bases. Asking NATO to join our invasion and occupation of Afghanistan covers our diplomatic bases. Branding our quest to profit off of oil and other business ventures in Iraq as a mission to bring down a terrible dictator with nukes (which he didn’t have) covers our public image as the harbingers of democracy and human rights. Even if there are things that are not justified, who is going to stop Us? Our crimes against humanity will go on with virtual impunity while we point the finger at authoritarian brown/black people whom we once financed, sponsored, supported and protected. When do we see American leaders brought before the ICC, or UN-sanctioned special tribunals? Not with the United States’ veto at the Security Council.
There was a time when the United States had the sympathy of the world. On September 12, 2001, when I was still in Iran, my fellow Iranians went to the streets and lit candles for the victims of 9/11 in solidarity with the American people. And now the same people face heinous sanctions, horrifying inflation rates, and the horrendous prospects of war from Western powers. Clearly, attacking Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan is not just about revenge/justice for 9/11.
So again I ask, why wouldn’t bin Laden’s code name be Geronimo? Different century, same imperialism. Indeed, Geronimo was probably considered a terrorist back in those days. I wonder: about a century from now, would bin Laden be a martyred hero who was just trying to preserve a way of life and resist American Eastward Expansion and imperialism? Well, we don’t need to wait a century: he already is.