Happy Mortal

This life, well-lived.

What Bothers Me About Osama’s Assassination


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.

  1. 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).
  2. 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).
  3. 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).
  4. 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.

movie & popcorn


  1. You seem to be making at least half of the the deeper conspiracy case (i.e. not the “shallow” glenbeckian gainsayer argument that needs death photos, your Objection #4). That is, I think you line up with Deep Conspiracy in reading this assassination event as “already mediated” and aimed at a demographic with information engagement models best suited for appreciating Hangover 2. Is that alignment intentional? Or a happy accident? Or am I over-reading?

    Of course, I’m not seeing much sympathy with your reading here and the other half of the Deep Conspiracy approach — the half chasing a hugely unrequited obsession with bedrock Truth and the Ur-turtle under up all the others. So I’m not actually accusing you of being a conspiracy theorist .

    I am, however, still mulling over your use of Galileo here — I’m not sure I see him as an “event” in some sort of external sense as much as he was one of the names put on a general shift in the landscape of social authority that already had Copernicus humming in the background.

  2. Thanks for the comments shelbyville. I am still working this through and appreciate the opportunity to do some more “thinking aloud.”

    [Key: 1/2 of Deep Conspiracy that has to do with “already mediated” and hangover two = DP1, the 1/2 of Deep Conspiracy that relates to the search for “unrequited truth” = DP2]

    I partially fall into the DP1 camp (am I 1/4th a conspiracy theorist?). I think this works along two lines. First, we live in a world where many people receive news of events via media. Media operates according to certain economic and political drives. This is just the way that it is. There is no ultimate mastermind orchestrating all of the ins and outs of coverage. So, we can’t reduce this phenomenon to a single agent–capitalism, Illuminati, Donald Trump, etc. Second, however, there is agency and strategy involved in covering events. More accurately, I think there is a multiplicity of agencies and strategies that determine (and are determined by) the shifting fields of media coverage. I do believe that in some meetings there is discussion of how to reach the Hangover 2 demographic.

    When it comes to DP2, I’d say your characterization is accurate. I am not looking for Ur. Yet, I do believe in the necessity of critical analysis in order to expose harmful forces.

    Re: Galileo. I agree with you. I chose Galileo as an example only because Badiou uses him as an example. And I certainly did not do justice to Badiou’s philosophy in my gloss. I do have questions about Badiou’s description of events, but it is the mechanism that came the closest to allowing me to describe what bothered me. One of the things that bothers me about Badiou is that, in my experience, authentic change can happen organically (as in an evolutionary model of change), it does not have to come from outside of the set. But I do think Badiou’s account has a particular strength in that it gives us language to distinguish between levels and types of mediation (coverage).