After Osama Bin Laden, the Spectacle of War Plays On

Bin Laden's death merely punctuates a narrative of self-justifying violence that keeps us not only terrorized, but mesmerized.

By Michelle Chen May 09, 2011

Now that we’ve gotten "one of the greatest intelligence and military operations in our nation’s history" out of he way, Americans can get on with their post-Osama bin Laden lives. And it’s now dawning upon us that even after the demise of Enemy Number One, the pulse of war hasn’t skipped a beat. There was a quick victory lap, perhaps a fleeting sense of finality. But on the front lines and the headlines, the fight against terror plays on from Ground Zero to Islamabad. Bin Laden’s death merely punctuates a narrative of self-justifying war that keeps us not only terrorized but mesmerized.

The stage was set years ago when the scandal of Abu Ghraib broke. Back then, the political and media establishment largely failed to look beyond the few-bad-apples theory of physical, sexual and psychological brutality on the battlefield. But the haunting images did cast doubt on the moral claims behind the occupation of Iraq, and made both the public and the government more aware of the power of perception to shape how we experience war. That legacy no doubt informed the Obama administration’s decision not to release photographic evidence of the raid that killed Bin Laden.

For the American public, disturbing war images may backfire in a different way, by wearing out our threshold for outrage and "desensitizing" the mind, as Silja Talvi argues. Today, the news cycle routinely churns out digital galleries of ruined bodies and bloody rubble, but the shock seems to wear off faster, as fatigue produces detachment, our adaptive emotional armor.

On the battlefield, meanwhile, outright fetishization of violence continues–a phenomenon most recently highlighted in Rolling Stone’s expose of maimed corpses in Afghanistan, perversely posed before U.S. soldiers’ cameras like hunting trophies.

Consider the countless civilian deaths caused by legally dubious drone attacks along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border (still going strong post-Bin Laden). In this case, executions are delivered via remote control.

There are many more victims who are literally invisible, disappeared to hidden prisons and black sites. One of the cases that has barely made it to public light is that of Maher Arar. The unassuming Canadian man was spirited away to Syria, where he was interrogated and tortured for months, according to an official inquiry. Despite full exoneration and a landmark legal settlement from Canadian authorities, the U.S. judiciary has denied Arar even the opportunity to appear before a court here.

A good deal of the war on terror has been waged outside of virtually any government or public accountability by shadowy mercenaries. The firm Blackwater (now rebranded as Xe) has been linked to various human rights abuses, as reported extensively by journalist Jeremy Scahill, including the massacring of Iraqi civilians and shooting rampages resembling "frat parties." The company has faced, and dodged, more conventional criminal allegations, too, such as weapons charges, murder, manslaughter, conspiracy, and corruption. As private war contractors, Blackwater is also free to steel its legal defenses by lavishing corporate campaign cash on Democrats.

The public-private partnership in U.S. militarism paved the way for the "Black Ops" infrastructure tied to the Bin Laden killing. The elite Navy SEALs, according to Scahill, is associated with the Joint Special Operations Command, a killing team that has operated in Pakistan with virtually no legal oversight.

Even on the home front, as we’ve reported previously, a decade after 9/11, secrecy continues to shroud the proliferation of surveillance programs and racially biased law enforcement. Accompanying this has been the erosion of conventional barriers between federal national security authorities and local and state police–the first step toward a militarization of ordinary policing.

In addition to secret detention sites, Guantanamo Bay still stands as America’s most enduring symbol of post-9/11 government impunity, despite the Obama administration’s repeated vows to close the facility. Gitmo’s longevity was akin to Bin Laden’s; it is institutionally broken but perfectly embodies everything wrong with the so-called war terror, just as Bin Laden’s strategic function in Al Qaeda is much less clear than his inspirational role.

As Chris Hedges stated in a speech shortly after news of Bin Laden’s death emerged: the vocabulary of national self-delusion has Cold War roots.

We responded exactly as these terrorist organizations wanted us to respond. They wanted us to speak the language of violence. What were the explosions that hit the World Trade Center, huge explosions and death above a city skyline? It was straight out of Hollywood. When Robert McNamara in 1965 began the massive bombing campaign of North Vietnam, he did it because he said he wanted to "send a message" to the North Vietnamese–a message that left hundreds of thousands of civilians dead.

These groups learned to speak the language we taught them. And our response was to speak in kind. The language of violence, the language of occupation–the occupation of the Middle East, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan–has been the best recruiting tool al-Qaida has been handed. If it is correct that Osama bin Laden is dead, then it will spiral upwards with acts of suicidal vengeance.

Ironically, the circumstances surrounding the death of the world’s most iconic terrorist has revived the buried debate over the legality and ethics of U.S. military policy. Assassination is an act the U.S. supposedly disavowed (at least in the open) 30 years ago, under the Reagan administration, but nowadays the media regularly reports on "targeted killings" administered by the Pentagon.

Maybe questions about the human rights implications of Bin Laden’s death will prompt a harder look at the far less publicized deaths of unnamed children, and arbitrarily detained prisoners. But it’s more likely that the fascination with Bin Laden’s death will soon yield to the banality of Washington’s constant war. The White House has already confirmed that Bin Laden’s death won’t significantly alter current military strategy.

Which leaves us with the question we should have been asking all along–why are we there? The anti-climax of Bin Laden’s exit proves that the war on terror was scripted without an ending. A national myth won’t die as long as the chorus keeps repeating.