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Insupportable Life: A Short Thought on the Death of Osama bin Laden

“To conclude is not merely erroneous, but ugly.”
Nick Land

Watching revelers crowd out into the streets of New York and Washington – not the Midwest or the deep South but those most stereotypically liberal bastions of America – to cheer the death of Osama bin Laden, I can’t help but recall the scenes of celebration in Middle Eastern streets that were drilled into our skulls directly after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. Although there are any number of obvious differences between 9/11 and the death of bin Laden, not least the fact that the former was a mass slaughter of civilians while the latter is a targeted execution of a murderous reprobate, I feel, nonetheless, that there is something oddly symmetrical about the two moments. What made those images of Arab euphoria feel so cold-blooded and anti-American – why they were so deliberately fetishised by the Western media as the “true nature” of our new enemy, to the almost complete exclusion of the more obvious, general, stunned, grim, mournful and shared disorientation in the Middle East over what this disaster would mean for the world, over what would happen now that the United States had been forced out into a globalisation based upon a terrific violence which the American Empire itself had largely administered from behind a wall of self-possessed untouchability we were beginning to believe could never be breached, what it meant to watch America join the world in trauma – and why it was, then, that those scenes were so understandably painful to Americans – could be found precisely in the fact that they displayed a wide cross-section of ordinary Arab people championing a ruthless atrocity as though it were a sterling blow for justice, as if justice could claim this act in its name. Truth be told, today, as before 9/11, and despite all the Western misinformation that has presented him as an Islamic folk hero, there has been next to no love for bin Laden in the Arab world, even among his fellow jihadis, for just in terms of the body count alone – both direct and indirect – that he has incurred through his actions, we should recall he has been a pitiless killer of Arabs before anything else. So it is, no doubt, that the Arab world, moving off on its own track in recent revolution and seditious revolt, will also feel relief to find this necropolitical presence has finally been obliterated from the world scene. And yet, though there is, surely, a common feeling around the globe that bin Laden’s death is no sorry event, a sentiment not limited merely to New York and Washington, I can’t help but wonder how all this celebration on our part must look to a Middle Easterner recalling the epithets we flung at the Arab world after seeing their cheering crowds, our slanderous insistence that it showed beyond all question how the Arab street was fanatical, irrational, bloodthirsty and fueled only by hate. I can’t help but think that this Arab street – which, to put it drily, has been forced down a steep learning curve during the last ten years by our military intensification of the art of discipline – must be asking itself now whether we have learned anything at all from the disaster which befell America on that day in September, ten long years ago. For, in the end, is not President Obama’s insistence that the death of bin Laden signals a blow for justice a sign in itself that we continue to reserve the right to validate our own acts of bloody retribution as morally righteous? It is not the case that we, just like the Arab crowds that day, have come out to celebrate the conflation of the two things and, what’s more, to claim the right to celebrate like this in the name of justice itself? What are we to make of military murder being presented not as an act of revenge, but praised as a great accomplishment, a new chapter in the annals of universal peace and rectification of wrongs, an authentic mission accomplished?

Allow me to clarify myself a little. What I am not trying to assert is that murdering bin Laden was wrong by definition – that is, to condemn it from the standpoint of an absolute pacifism, or an absolute opposition to the sin of murder, or from the alibi of an absolute humanism that would sentimentally, though insincerely, hold all human life – even the worst kind of human life – to possess intrinsic and equal value to me. On the contrary, I am more than happy to say that Osama bin Laden’s death marks, in my eyes, a rare tick upward in the quality of the world we live in. Moreover, if bin Laden was killed by a unilateral and summary military action – an action that may be, in a word, quite criminal from the position of civil laws – I likewise don’t feel the unilateral or summary nature of that action makes it automatically immoral – not, that is, if bin Laden was to be understood as a lawful combatant, subject to the rules of engagement in war, of which I’ll have more to add in a moment. Finally, despite the military-analytical insistence from the commentariat that bin Laden has, for some time now, been a non-issue in terms of the strategic aims of the war of terror, there is actually a strong strategic gain in his death not in terms of the war on terror but against the coherence of that war itself. Indeed, although progressively marginalized as a threat by our authorities, and, indeed, not nearly as powerful as he ever was presented, Bin Laden has nevertheless remained quite vital, symbolically speaking, to both terrorist and counter-terrorist crusading, through the ideological unity his absent presence has provided to the otherwise floating signifer of “al-Qaedaism”. His “brand”, as it were, has served as a means of integration for fractious, isolated Islamist fundamentlist terrorist acts, making them into a holistic cause with an integrative appeal both for would-be terrorists and will-be counter-terrorists. In a sense, it flattened the detachment of one act of terror from another in logistical and political terms, the lack, that is to say, of any sustained interagential intimacy between the teacher and the acolyte, between the agenda-setters and their agents, that defines such terror networks – in perhaps a defining instance of what Geert Lovink has called the “uncanny networks” of late capital – and acted as cynosure for the idea of an ultimate orchestration or goal-driven ensemble of terrorist acts. Therefore, while he has largely been off stage and underground ever since he vanished from the image in the aftermath of the opening stages of the Afghanistan war, the figural coherence of bin Laden as the ghost in the machine has remained quite at hand, forefronted, most of all, in the way we in the West have largely fabricated the disorganized plurality of regional, domestic, international or intracultural terrorist groups and actions into a catch phrase caricature, a singular unit, “al-Qaeda”, a slippery beast which, like the classic octopus of propaganda posters, works precisely so as to smooth the ideological factionalism and specific, unamenable aims of fundamentalist terrorist groups into an automated blanket menace arrowed not at their own fantastic outcomes but always directly at us. In this way, the death of bin Laden as the Master Signifier will likely bring with it a sharp decline in symbolic efficiency around the idea of al-Qaeda as a meaningful explanatory entity for terrorist acts, a consequence the ever-cynical Bush administration signalled it knew all too well in its incurious whateverness toward bin Laden’s whereabouts or fate, but which Obama, with his professed anti-Iraq war interest in winding the war on terror back down to its origins, rather than ubiquitously extending its ambit, could not, it seems, despite the powerful dividends of ignorance, prevent himself from needing to know.

Even taking all of this into account, however, if it is one thing to say that the murder of bin Laden can be understood as a kind of good and to accept that it is not a crime from the perspective of the waging of war, nor a war crime insofar as it has not involved the torture of combatants or the mass murder of civilians (although one innocent woman died, as if always to tether such “clinical” strikes to the minimum wage of noncombatant bloodshed, the criminal immanence, that should make them only ever extraordinary tactics), it is absolutely another thing altogether to argue that such an act of enemy elimination is, by consequence, just. For this act of military murder – no, the apparatus of military murder generally, and its shifting borders of atrocity, of which we have seen yet another greusome and garish example just recently in Afghanistan – only finds itself vindicated due to the fact, ten years on, there is still no proper system of justice set up that could have coherently dealt with bin Laden in any more scrupulous way than simply killing him. While it remains to be seen whether bin Laden was murdered in the course of an honest effort to apprehend him, or whether he was actively and deliberately executed in custody (which would, of course, constiutute a war crime), I’d suggest, either way, that the whole logic of the war on terror has functioned on the presumption that his death or his disappearance is preferable to his live capture or his presentation to the courts. And to understand why this might be so, all we need do is simply consider what would have followed if he had, indeed, been taken alive. Most certainly, as with all the other ‘unlawful combatants’ scooped up by the hand of justice before him, bin Laden would first have vanished into the CIA’s secret prison system or been sequestered in Guantánamo, there to fester not only as the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks but as the definitive symbol of the lack of any effort on our own part to follow the system of due process, to respect the most basic rules of habeas corpus, and, at bare minimum, to construct a series of independent military tribunals that would bring to the war on terror something other than the utterly arbitrary punishments which now apply everywhere in it. Can we picture, then, the running sore of attention and political drama bin Laden’s presence in the extralegal prisons of the United States would have brought to bear on the unconscionable contradictions of that extralegal space itself? Can we imagine how his incarceration would have raised intense questions about the ongoing need for those prisons, as well as made blatant the fact they aren’t doing the job of bringing the evil-doers to justice – since justice, by definition, can’t and isn’t meant to reach them in Guantánamo? This interdicted prospective scenario matters, because we can be quite sure that an apprehended bin Laden would have triggered a great public demand for him to face a proper trial, either in a civilian court, or the Hague, or in a Nuremburg style military inquest. There would, I believe, have been a widespread unwillingness to accept indefinite detention as a sufficient outcome in bin Laden’s case, either in terms of adequate closure or a just resolution to his crimes, especially given the way he has been turned into the very antithesis of all that the free world’s lawfulness ostensibly represents. However, if Obama had decided to bring bin Laden to trial in such a court, the whole logic behind Guantánamo’s state of exception would have erupted into general crisis – since what grounds could exist for inflicting the higher, unadjudicated punishment of infinite detention on those incarcerated who are, axiomatically, lower down the chain of command than bin Laden? Are these lesser detainees to remain detained even as their notional leader is being delivered over to face the fineries of a legal prosecution? Think, too, of the problems attendant upon subjecting someone so obviously and demonstrably guilty as bin Laden to the kangaroo court proceedings of the current system of “military commissions”, with their unabashed tendency to dispose of even the basics of constitutionally guaranteed provisions of legal and evidentary representation in their deliberations. These special commissions don’t merely skirt the edges but thoroughly junk the the very notion of justice that a trial against bin Laden would have to invoke, unavoidably, in subjecting him to the deliberations of a court that would aim to convict him. Paradoxically, the absolute guilt of the guilty renders a show trial insupportably obscene.

The post-9/11 maw of sovereign lawlessness is, consequently, not a seperate issue from bin Laden’s death but exactly what cannot be seperated out from this lovely little execution, a killing which, we must acknowledge, assumes its full meaning in the context of a fundamental immunity of counterterrorist punishment to be held to any consistent application of law – an immunity established at the moment Bush deemed the adversary to be neither criminal nor combatant, but both and none, coupled together with an autoimmunity simultaneously established in the same moment that has amalgamated the police and the military functions together, and fuelled the flat refusal to apply any standard of rule-bound justice to the war on terror, or to cede power to the justice of any rule-bound standard. There is an unseemly premeditation to the fact bin Laden is dead, then, in that his death crowns the rejection, from the very first, of developing a just way to convict him. As such, even if his fate is all too richly deserved, to brand this blatant act of murder a thing of justice is to beatify a counterterrorist politics that has, in fact, worked furiously to close off every road to justice before it, not least in its insistence on turning law-inscribed adversaries into pre-emptively insupportable life. It is one thing to feel a sense of gratification at the destruction of a destroyer. That is understandable, even acceptable. But let us not be tricked into raising mere comeuppance to the level and stature of a spurned, still-absent justice.


Filed under: anti-imperialism, anti-militarism, Catastrophization, justice, law, militancy without militarism, Reactionary Ecology, Terrorism