In Pakistan last Monday Osama bin Laden was shot dead in his bedroom by American Special Forces. This brought to an end the ten-year hunt of the man who felled the World Trade Towers with such spectacular and deadly accuracy.
Or does it?
Bin Laden has been the poster boy of the War on Terror declared by George Bush Jr from the smouldering ruins in Manhattan. Bin Laden provided a focal point for representations of Al-Qaeda as a frightening and acephalic coalition of terrorists, religious fundamentalists and jihadists.
Bin Laden evaded capture for a decade. In the end he was found – hiding in plain sight – quite by chance. According to the Washington Post a friend called to catch up with bin Laden’s main courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. His response to the friend’s query about what he was up to was “I’m back with the people I was with before.” After a pause, the friend replied: “May God facilitate.”
This innocuous exchange apparently alerted US intelligence to the fact that they were onto something, apparently. This led them to bin Laden’s compound north of Islamabad where, as anyone who wasn’t on the moon, knows that the world’s most wanted man was shot dead last Monday.
“This is where you start the movie about the hunt for bin Laden,” the Washington Post quoted one US official as saying.
There was much about the raid that was oddly cinematic. The images of Barrack Obama, Hilary Clinton and some extras watching the images relayed from the Navy Seals’ helmets (I presume) were unsettling. After all, they were watching a particularly gruesome reality show. Then there was the barrage of conflicting stories that came out in the aftermath of the execution. He was armed. He wasn’t armed. He used his wife as a human shield. She rushed to protect him. His daughter was shot. She wasn’t shot. The kind of narrative hazing that happens when the resolution of a plot is not quite as heroic or as morally un-ambiguous as either its producers or its audience would like it to be.
Bin Laden was, in the simplified cinematic language of political thrillers, of contemporary politics and in much of the Western media, the ultimate bad guy. The guy in the movie who the good guys hunt down, the guy they take out, the guy whose bloodied corpse means your troubles are over and life in the simple universe of fiction can return to normal.
Modern battles are won or lost on television, but the distinction between fiction and reality, between news and entertainment is irredeemably blurred. Although Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda were behind the horrific bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, it was the attacks on New York that this killing avenged. Osama bin Laden unleashed immense suffering on innocent people but the power of the 9/11 bombings lies in the eternal loop – a Mobius strip of horror – that runs in all our heads. The everlasting repeat of those planes flying into the buildings, the inferno, the collapse. Ten years later, the mastermind is dead and we have the images of Americans celebrating bin Laden’s killing with flags and beers as if they had won a football game. As if everything was fine because the good guys got the bad guy at last. But it isn’t and the two sets of images don’t seem to cancel each other out.
The Pentagon has released footage seized at bin Laden’s compound. I imagine that this is meant to demonstrate that bin Laden remained central to Al-Qaeda’s global activities, thus justifying his summary execution rather than the more complicated alternative of capture and the modern day version of a Nuremberg-style trial.
Bin Laden reacted to and was part of the creation of a world that seems polarised almost beyond a point of rapprochement. The West vs. the East, Christianity vs. Islam. These murderous divisions have become facts that we need to change. But the change will have to come not from the easily resolved world of fiction. And yet the picture of an unarmed man in pyjamas shot dead in his bedroom in front of his wife and twelve year old daughter is deeply unsettling. His death does not look like the bridge across an ideological and religious chasm. It certainly did not look like the first image in a new narrative about peace.