The celebration sparked by the assassination of Osama bin Laden causes an itch in my mind that I can’t scratch: something bothers me about U.S. joy in the wake of bin Laden’s death. Others too have expressed reservations about the celebration, and so far those misgivings have fallen into four camps.
- The moral objection. By assassinating and celebrating, we fall into the very trap set by the terrorists. We try and fight terror (a concept) and end up becoming terrorists ourselves (cf Chris Hedges). In fact, we are even worse than the terrorists (cf Chomsky).
- The realist objection. Osama’s death may have some cathartic use-value, yet we shouldn’t allow this to blind us to the fact that Al Qaeda has other capable leaders. Moreover, we should be asking serious questions about the complicity of Pakistan in aiding and abetting bin Laden (cf report on nymag).
- The political objection. Obama chose to share this information now to bury his birth certificate release and/or to gain points for the coming election (cf report on Gawker).
- The conspiracy objection. Unless we see the pics, we won’t truly believe he is dead. (you know where to find this).
None of these objections, however, get at what’s bothering me. So, I will attempt an explanation, and maybe you can help me gain more clarity in your comments and questions. My perception is that we live in a time when there is a general acknowledgment of the bias and spin put on “facts” by the media, the government, your mom. In other words, we know that most organizations–especially news organizations–tweak their reporting to support particular ideologies. Often those ideologies are political. They are always economic.
We know this. We live with it. Fox on the right. MSNBC on the left. The current administration makes political decisions in order to get re-elected, in order to get political funding. This isn’t the whole story about our institutions, but it is a major part. We live in an ideological theater. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, Jean Baudrillard, Theodor Adorno, etc. Break out the popcorn. What bothers me has more to do with those moments when we collectively ignore the theater, the pageantry, the manipulation. Moments when something so momentous occurs that it overwhelms the spin and we stop and react “as a nation”. 9/11 Was one of those moments.
Here’s the point, I saw many people reacting as if bin Laden’s assassination was such a time, where we leave aside bias and come together in a collective catharsis (cf John Stewart). Let’s all rejoice as a nation. Let’s set aside our differences and find some closure. Take a moment and feel the righteousness and security of justice. It is truly a good day.
Of course, we are never free from spin, from telling stories about facts, from interpreting. Yet my objection isn’t that people are merely pretending that Osama’s death should be spin free, when in fact it is still subject to ideology. I didn’t object to this phenomenon after 9/11. My objection is that this particular “event” isn’t worthy of a collective suspension of disbelief. It isn’t even convincing. I’m not buying into the conspiracy rhetoric. I believe he is dead. I believe he likely had something to do with 9/11. But I don’t believe bin Laden’s assassination warrants turning a blind eye to spin and hugging each other senseless. I don’t believe that reducing it to “they screwed us and so we screwed them back” constitutes a genuine cathartic response.
Why the hell not? Two answers: 1. To a certain extent I buy into the first three objections I listed above. These are reasons why the simple narrative is weak. 2. Most importantly, Osama’s death isn’t an event. It was always already covered. September eleven crashed in on us through our literal infrastructure and our ideological infrastructure. It shot through the hyperreal of continual coverage with the real (HT Baurdrillard). Therefore gave us the chance for genuine collective response. “Genuine” in the sense that it gave us the opportunity for something new.
Bin Laden’s death is not a true event, neither in Badiouian sense nor in the Baudrillardian sense. For Badiou, at least in his earlier work, an event occurs and then becomes an event for us when it is named. We next have the opportunity to live in fidelity towards that event, to explore its ramifications for the status quo. This is the way that things actually change. Galileo’s discoveries were an event. Those who recognized this named its significance, and eventually the scientific community undertook the task of living in fidelity to that event, exploring how it changed their relationship to the universe. Osama’s death was not an event in this sense. It did not arise from outside the set of the status quo. It is more of the same. Pretending to live in fidelity to it through a collective catharsis is a farce.
Furthermore it is not an event in the Baudrillardian sense. It did not crash through the hyperreal. It is flat. Don’t pretend it has depth. It was always already mediated. Therefore it cannot be truly symbolic for us (though it might be that for other groups).
Reheat your popcorn and take your seats. There is no intermission in this show.