Antigone: Death yearns for equal law for the dead.
Creon: Not that the good and bad draw equal shares.
Antigone: Who knows that this is holiness below?
Creon: Never the enemy, even in death, a friend.
Antigone: I cannot share in hatred, but in love.
Creon: Then go down there, if you must love, and love
the dead. No woman rules me while I live.

Antigone, Sophocles, 441 BCE   

U-S-A. U-S-A.
Obama got Osama. Obama Got Osama.
You can’t beat us (clap-clap-clap-clap-clap-clap). You can’t beat us.
Fuck bin La-den. Fuck bin La-den.

N+1 Blog, chants heard at Ground Zero, New York, May 2011

We got Voldemort, We Got Voldermort.

Chant, heard on campuses at Iowa, Stanford, and UC Davis, May 2011


Contrary to what many liberals imagined in November 2008, the debasement of American political culture continues apace. Instead of reversing the trend, the lawyer-President and his team have deliberately accelerated the process. There have been more deportations of immigrants than under Bush; fewer prisoners held without trial have been released from Gitmo, an institution that the lawyer-President had promised to close down; the Patriot Act with its defining premises of what constitutes friends and enemies has been renewed and a new war begun in Libya without the approval of Congress on the flimsy basis that the bombing of a sovereign state should not be construed as a hostile act; whistleblowers are being vigorously prosecuted and so on—the list growing longer by the day. Politics and power override all else. Liberals who still believe that the Bush administration transcended the law while the Democrats are exemplars of a normative approach are blinded by political tribalism. Apart from Obama’s windy rhetoric, little now divides this administration from its predecessor. 

Nothing illustrates this debasement so well as the incident at Abbotabad. Ignore, for a moment, the power of politicians and propagandists to enforce their taboos and prejudices on American society as a whole, a power often used ruthlessly and vindictively to silence opposition from all quarters—Bradley Manning, Thomas Drake, Julian Assange, Stephen Kim, currently being treated as criminals and public enemies, know this better than most—and examine, in its bare essentials, what took place.

To pull himself out of a slump, the President ordered an execution. Bush and posse had launched the Afghan war after 9/11 as a straightforward exercise in revenge with the stated objective of capturing Bin Laden, “dead or alive.” Subsequently, or so one is told, the Republican leaders only wanted him dead. In 2006 on my way back from Lahore I encountered an acquaintance from my youth. Shamefacedly he confessed that he was a senior intelligence officer on his way to a European conference to discuss better ways of combating terrorism. The following conversation (a lengthier version can be found in my book The Duel: Pakistan on the Flightpath of American Power) ensued:

‘Is OBL still alive?’
He didn’t reply.
"When you don’t reply,’ I said, ‘I’ll assume the answer is yes."
I repeated the question. He didn’t reply.
"Do you know where he is?"
He burst out laughing.
"I don’t, and even if I did, do you think I’d tell you?’
"No, but I thought I’d ask anyway. Does anyone else know where he is?"
He shrugged his shoulders.
I insisted: "Nothing in our wonderful country [Pakistan] is ever a secret. Someone must know."
"Three people know. Possibly four. You can guess who they are."
I could. "And Washington?"
"They don’t want him alive."
"And your boys can’t kill him?"
"Listen, friend, why should we kill the goose that lays the golden eggs?"

To take him alive would have meant locking him in Guantanamo till he died. Better to kill him when the time was right. Finally he was tracked down by US special agents in the field and an execution ordered. That is the official version. The truth is probably much more complicated and might never be revealed unless, in the months ahead, a friendly hacker does the decent thing. Without a well-placed network of collaborators in Pakistan (including some in high places) the operation would have been very difficult, SEALs or no SEALs.

Who ordered the assassination?

Obama obliged and some of his young supporters, numbering several hundreds rather than thousands, came out to cheer. The enemy was dead. Rejoice, rejoice was the liberal motto of the hour and they did. Maureen Dowd in the New York Times and Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, regarded by many liberals as the ultimate in political wisdom, were cheered up by the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. Their boy, whom they sometimes mocked, had scored a rare hit.

Nor were they alone. Leaders of tributary and vassal states (including Pakistan) queued on the phone to congratulate Obama, whose lean and hungry look on the screen as he watched the Navy Seals in action, suggested he was already thinking of his next term. European leaders repeated the same mantra: “His death makes the world a safer place.”

I want to leave them alone, mired in their own economic crises, blinded by their addiction to money and power and incapable of understanding that they preside over a political-economic system in decline.

I am far more interested in the generation of young Americans, still at school or college, between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one, an intellectually formative period in one’s life:  this generation has seen its country permanently engaged in war and conflict of one variety or another. What does it mean to be young and a citizen of the most powerful empire in world history? What impact did the Abbotabad killing have on them? The majority are confronted with the problems of everyday life:  unemployment, poverty, semi-employment, social deprivation, volunteering for the armed forces or incarceration and its corollary (the loss of the right to vote). I wonder how many of them cheered the Navy SEALs? For others, including those who can afford to pay for higher education and see their futures tied to the ideological and military successes of the Empire it matters a great deal. The number of young people who felt compelled to rush to Ground Zero or the White House was not large but  the social composition was interesting. Mostly they were the offspring of liberal arts colleges and universities who—like liberal columnists and liberal TV anchors—saw this as an Obama triumph with which they could identify.  

Public celebrations were largely confined to campuses. In the East: Ohio State, Penn State, Yale, George Washington University, Holy Cross, University of Massachusetts, Boston College, University of Maryland, Binghamton University, Delaware; in the Midwest: Iowa State, University of Missouri, Bentley, Illinois State, South Louisiana State, University of West Virginia; on the West coast:  Stanford, UC Davis.  On other campuses the demonstrations were more individual in character, largely confined to frat houses and dorm corridors, with predominantly male students, usually in a state of advanced inebriety, draped in emblematic togas, the stars and stripes covering their nakedness as they cheered the result of the war-game in Abbotabad. They were a minority, but who were they? A “miscellaneous rabble” who, bringing to mind Milton’s Samson Agonistes, “extol things vulgar, praise and admire they know not what and know not whom, but as one leads the other ... of whom to be dispraised was no small praise.”

What if Bush had deployed the jungle law sometimes referred to, in this post-legal world, as the doctrine of necessity and ordered the Bin Laden execution? The composition of the rabble might have been different, but the chants would probably have remained the same. Might we have been spared Voldermort? Who can tell?

What we do know is that the United States has been continuously at war since the campus rejoicers were born: the “peace dividend” discussed briefly after the collapse of Communism, while they were being conceived, has always remained an abstract notion. For some the very idea of peace in a world where evil exists is an obscenity. If it is true that the costume of each dominant imperial “civilization” is mimicked globally, fashion gurus should be hard at work designing camouflage combat jackets with hooks for laser goggles. The bomber jets of the Republic, bolstered by and bolstering a thriving arms industry, have now taken war to almost every continent. But utilising military strength abroad to override economic and political decay at home is a sign of weakness rather than strength.

Let’s start with the decision to target and kill hostiles without any recourse to the law. Surely even a person regarded as a heartless, cold-blooded, dehumanized Wahabbi Muslim, deserves a trial. After all, the German leaders of the Third Reich still seen as amongst the worst war criminals in recent history (and, for some, since history began) were tried for their crimes and sentenced. Others were pardoned and employed directly by the United States (Wernher Von Braun the most notorious and immortalized in the Tom Lehrer song) or the post-Nazi West German state, which was instructed to re-employ General Gehlen as its spymaster so that Nazi spies in Europe could remain active in service to the new Federal Republic. The Emperor of Japan, who ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor, was not only spared a trial and execution, but was also rewarded: he was kept on the throne. Innocents were nuked in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The perpetrators of that violence could, of course, never be tried. They were only obeying orders. There is, thus, no fixed pattern in the US treatment of “hostiles.” In recent years US warlords have admired plucky little Israel for regularly targeting and killing Palestinian leaders and intellectuals for resisting its occupation of their lands. Approving a crime often paves the way for committing one.

What determines the punishment is the conjunctural needs of the imperial state.  In the coded messages preceding the attack on the Bin Laden compound in Pakistan, the Saudi Arabian Islamo-anarchist was referred to as “Geronimo,” the Apache guerrilla leader who fought against both Mexico and the United States and was regarded as “the worst Indian that ever lived.” The genocide of native Americans has been well-documented. Geronimo himself was tracked down and captured by US soldiers. He surrendered. His punishment was to live on a reservation and be exhibited at numerous fairs. Till his dying day, he regretted that he had ever surrendered. But unlike Osama and most native Americans, he was given a choice. The killer helicopter named the Apache was bad enough. Which Pentagon bureaucrat had pandered to his subconscious and devised the code-name?

Islamo-anarchist? My description of al-Qaeda after 9/11 offended many anarchists and, no doubt, hard-core Islamists as well. But I stuck to the term. After all, 9/11 was little more than violent propaganda. Why should the spectacular outrages carried out by Islamist terrorists be dehistoricised? Why should we forget the anarchist assaults during the late 19th and early 20th centuries in both Europe and South Asia? Or the hits that they scored by targeting and killing President Carnot of France (1894) and following it up three years later by assassinating the Spanish Prime Minister, followed next year by killing Empress Elizabeth of Austria. They celebrated the new century by executing King Umberto of Italy in 1900 and President William McKinley in 1901. Then they paused for a period of reflection and in 1912 resumed their work by wasting another Spanish Prime Minister. There were failures too as a result of which the Spanish King Alfonso and Kaiser Wilhelm I survived. More random attacks were carried out in Paris to increase class-consciousness and cafes were bombed. A French anarchist ditty of the time boasted:

It will come, it will come
Every bourgeois will have his bomb

The function of what the anarchist thinkers referred to as “the propaganda of the deed” was designed to attack the oppressors of the poor and the lack of any real democracy. During the late Sixties and early Seventies of the last century some of this tradition was reclaimed by terrorist groups of one variety or another—motivated largely by the horrors of the US war in Vietnam—in Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States. The difference with AQ is essentially on the basis of ideology. The anarchists believed in radical social change. AQ acts in the name of Allah. The arguments used in the  19th century to justify the death of innocents are not so different from those deployed by AQ: all are complicit in the deeds of their governments. In his 1891 political novel, El Filibusterismo, the great Filipino novelist and anti-imperialist José Rizal exposed the bare bones of the debate by putting the following words in the mouth of his anarchist anti-hero, Simoun, who wants the dynamite to destroy all who refuse to take up arms. All?

“All,” Simoun repeated ruthlessly, “all natives, half-breeds, Chinese, Spaniards, all those who show themselves to be without courage, without resolution ... What, you shudder? You tremble and fear to kill ... The most timid of rulers, to satisfy a whim, a fancy, his vanity, does not hesitate to proclaim a law which will lead to the ruin and the slow agony of thousands and thousands of his subjects, prosperous till then, hard-working, happy perchance. And do you shudder because in one night the moral sufferings of so many slaves will end forever, because a corrupt and paralytic people will die to make way for a new one, young, active, full of energy?”

With an unrelenting and pitiless sophistry, Simoun is trying to convince a sceptical Basilio, himself a victim of state atrocities, that this is the only way forward but the latter, in the  words of the narrator-novelist, “weakened by more than three months in prison and blinded by the thirst for vengeance, was not prepared to analyse their moral foundations.” Rizal is in no doubt as to how Basilio should have responded:

"He should have replied that the most evil or cowardly of men is still
something more than a vegetable because he has a soul and a mind
that, no matter how corrupt and brutalized, can be redeemed; that no
man has a right to decide to cut short the life of anyone else no matter
for whose benefit, and that the right to life is inherent in every man
like the right to liberty and enlightenment.…"

Rizal’s argument applies not only to anarchists but also to powerful states. Obama, it seems, was desperate for a symbolic victory and for several weeks following the incident, he and the killer SEALs basked in the glory of the global videosphere and its regulars. Few, very few, questioned the dumping of the body in the ocean. Bin Laden’s sons, in a moving appeal, explained why they felt the body should have been handed over to them. They did not agree with their father’s views or actions, but were taken aback by the barbarism. Nor is the question of the body related solely to Islam. The debate goes back to pagan times, as highlighted in Sophocles’ play Antigone. And Homer, too, in the Iliad paints a pathetic scene when Priam of Troy comes in person to plead for the body of his slain son Hector with Achilles, who has had the body dragged in the mud in anger and revenge for Hector’s slaying of Patrocles (Achilles’ friend and lover). Achilles relents but has the body washed and cleaned before he returns it to the father. Western civilization has not yet reached that time.

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