Osama and the Culture Warriors

John Buell
Author of
Liars! Cheaters! Evildoers!: Demonization and the End of Civil Debate in American Politics (NYU Press)

Okay, let me get this straight. A vast swath of land along the Mississippi is now drowning, The Southeast is recovering from a series of tornadoes historic in both scope and intensity. Texas seeks to recover from the worst forest fires in 90 years and the most severe drought in a century. Yet what concerns our leaders and the corporate media the most? Even in death, Osama bin Laden is the focus of attention. Osama apparently contemplated an attack on the US rail system. The response was as immediate as it was predictable. Legislators and national security experts demanded increased levels of surveillance. Some, like New York Senator Schumer, advocated a no ride list analogous to the airlines’ no-fly lists.

As the US government and media discussed steps to strengthen state reach in its war on terror, they were retreating on other fronts. Sierra Club chair Carl Pope pointed out, “Ironically, most of the states afflicted by recent weather extremes voted last November to shrink the federal government and drown it in a bathtub.” And as Pope notes, the state affected by these weather disasters are also the most dogmatic deniers of any connection between our carbon economy and climate change.

Merely a theory, they say. They seem unaware that science does not establish final truths but only theories. When scientists speak of theories, however, they do not mean mere speculation. Theories help guide and integrate countless empirical studies and reams of data. Every theory has some holes and gaps and part of the process of science is filling gaps and refining theories.

Deniers of anthropogenic climate change are in any case holding global climate change theory to standards that many natural scientists now regard as overly restrictive. They insist on a concept of causality that clearly connects each weather event to specific and discrete mechanisms and/or events that always produce the same predictable result. Many fields of science, however, embrace more complex models of change that include the interaction of predisposing conditions, external shocks, and self organizing and amplifying systems. Precise specific predictions are not possible, but scientists can identify conditions far from equilibrium in which a range of extreme events become more likely.

But rather than pursue further the implications of current models of causality in the natural sciences, let’s compare the “evidence” that impels No Ride Lists with the evidence regarding our infrastructure’s ability to withstand likely stresses.

Even if recent extreme weather events are only a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon, the broad physical infrastructure of American life is unprepared for even routine stresses In 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the US infrastructure as a whole a grade of D.

Our bridges, highways, sewerage and water systems, dams, and levies are in wretched shape. The evidence of their failings is all around us. Yet as the New York Times pointed out, the evidence for al-Qaeda’s threat to the rail system lies in vague speculation about possible plans for which no operational details exist.

Let’s ask another simple question. Suppose al-Qaeda does derail a passenger train in the Northeast corridor or blow up a subway car in downtown Manhattan. A horrible tragedy of course and a despicable act, but the economic cost and citizens lost would be far less than those attributable both directly and indirectly to the (increasingly likely) breakdown of water or sewerage systems in major cities and dams and levies along our great rivers. Reductions in the rail and transit systems imposed over the last generation have undoubtedly already compelled millions more citizens to turn to our dangerous highways for work and leisure activities.

So why is a no ride list urgent while we relentlessly cut funds for infrastructure and turn our backs on even adequate preparation for routine events? Hard facts cannot explain this phenomenon. It is a story of cultural war and identity politics. Historically, diseases associated with despised or distrusted groups have often been deemed great threats. Thus HIV has been the subject of near hysteria, but tobacco kills far more citizens. Despite much public health study over two generations, the Marlboro man carried more resonance with our population than those deemed sexually ‘deviant’ or criminal.

Attributing extreme dangers to groups whose lifestyle or religion differs in significant ways from mainstream values and identity serves for many a deep existential need. Portrayals of the dangers of gays or Muslims, often in language reminiscent of that employed against earlier generations of others (think the equation of Osama and Geronimo) confirms for some the value and worth of their Christian civilization.

Acceptance of the risks of climate change might entail a real challenge for some to deeply held identities. Money spent on infrastructure means ‘big government.’ Regulations regarding carbon use or changes in production and consumption priorities challenge ways of life for which American workers have committed much of their time and psychic energy. The very sacrifices they have made leave them more committed to an ideal of material affluence and control of nature—either by God or man—as final and self-evident truths. Reassurance through demonization of the other—especially with the claim that they hate us for what we are rather than what we do in the world—can become especially luring or tempting today. This is a world of rapid change, population flows, and the constant emergence of new ethnic and lifestyle minorities.

Constitutional scholar and Salon.com blogger Glenn Greenwald has argued that such proposals as the no ride list are an attempt to achieve the unreachable goal of perfect security, elimination of any risk of untimely death. Greenwald is on to something. Death, even untimely death, is a part of the human condition.

Security, however, as James Der Derian, director of the Global Security Program at Brown University’s Watson Institute points out, historically has had two senses: “Coeval with the condition of security as a preferred condition of safety was a different connotation, of security as false or misplaced confidence in one’s position. In Macbeth, Shakespeare wrote that ‘Security is Mortals chiefest Enemie.’” [1]

Fear of death, refusal to accept a world that may always exceed our grasp encourages an impossible quest for total security. That quest in turn, in Der Derian’s words “trigger a futile cycle of collective identities seeking security from alien others who are seeking similarly impossible guarantees. It is a story of differences taking on the otherness of death and identities calcifying into a fearful sameness.” [2]

Our obsession with this latter, hubristic sense of security has ugly consequences—especially in today’s rapidly changing world. We seek the false promise of building society on fully shared core religious and philosophical values rather than upon multiple foundations actively engaged with each other. Under the latter ideal each can come to acknowledge gaps and ambiguities in its own case as it advances critique of its opponents. As Der Derian puts it, one not only learns from and accommodates other ways of living but also “to revise one’s own way of living and doing things.” [3] Such a process aids and is aided by an openness to the new rights claims that will inevitably emerge from such a fluid process. The only absolute is opposition to any religious, sexual, gender, or ethnic group to use of the state to impose its worldview and life style on the rest of the community.

The security obsession stunts our ability to engage difference in ways that might foster a more just, peaceful, and inclusive society. It also impedes our own self-understanding and capacity to explore new currents and visions in our own complex and evolving selves. At the very least obsessive quests for a secure set of personal and national ideals may make this a much more dangerous world.

[1] Der Derian, James. "The Value of Security: Hobbes, Marx, Nietzsche, and Baudrillard," in Critical Practices in International Theory: Selected Essays.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Constantinou, Costas M. and James Der Derian. "Sustaining Global Hope: Sovereignty, Power and the Transformation of Diplomacy," in Sustainable Diplomacies.

Osama bin Laden, Pornography, and the American Way

Simon Stow
The College of William and Mary

Among the apparent treasure trove of materials recovered from Osama bin Laden's safe house in Pakistan were, we are told, bottles of Coca Cola, a holistic version of Viagra, and a stash of pornography. Given the conflicting reports from the White House about the details of the raid that killed bin Laden, we should perhaps regard the latest revelations with a certain amount of skepticism. First we were told that Navy Seals had engaged in a fierce firefight; then, that shots had been exchanged only once. Second, that bin Laden had shielded himself behind his wife; and then, that he had not. Third, that bin Laden had been armed at the time of his death; and then, that he had not. In each case, the initial accounts were meant to help justify the decision to kill rather than capture bin Laden while simultaneously seeking undermine the credibility of al Qaeda's leader.

The recent announcement about bin Laden's love of adult entertainment is, of course, meant to do the same: exposing the disparity between his high ideals and his base desires. The paradox is that the hypocrisy meant to discredit to bin Laden is the hypocrisy of the United States. Pornography is the largest and most profitable sector of the U.S. Entertainment industry with revenues far outstripping those of the NFL, NBA, and Major League Baseball combined. That bin Laden liked to drink Coca Cola and engage in a single-handed jihad on his sexual appetites places him firmly within an American tradition of self-pleasuring consumerism. It is an uncomfortable thought, made all the more uncomfortable, perhaps, by the recognition that this might not be all that America shares with bin Laden.

In The Commission: the Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation (Grand Central Publishing, 2008) by New York Times reporter Philip Shenon, the former head of the CIA's bin Laden unit, Michael Scheuer is quoted as paralleling bin Laden's fatwa against the United States with the American Declaration of Independence. Comparing bin Laden to Jefferson, Scheuer observes that bin Laden's was a "frighteningly reasoned argument," absent the usual Islamic extremist rhetoric about "women in the work place or X-rated movies." The disputes, Scheuer notes, were political not cultural. Connecting bin Laden to pornography is yet another way of avoiding any considered engagement with the validity or otherwise of his political claims. Nevertheless, bin Laden's apparent love of pornography is, perhaps, no more or less discrediting to his arguments than were Jefferson's extra-marital, and possibly extra-consensual, relations with Sally Hemmings.

Part of the problem here is that pornography itself generates obsession, one reflected in both bin Laden's stash, and in the coverage of it by the U.S. media. Hence the glee that led The New York Post to lead with the headline "Osama Porn Bin Wankin’!"? More than this, perhaps, this ecstasy may be a product of an even deeper connection between bin Laden and America: that he has in some ways been shown to be just like us. The stories of bin Laden's self-denial and rugged individualism -- holed up in a cave and eluding capture like a latter-day Jesse James or Pretty-Boy Floyd -- might have reminded us of something that we had lost. That we had, perhaps, become a little flaccid. The knowledge that bin Laden spent the years we had feared him watching porn and making plans he would never accomplish may make him seem much more relatable, and thus less frightening, to many Americans. (Given the absence of the internet in bin Laden's hideout, I am actually quite curious about the person whose job it was to supply bin Laden with pornography and how exactly the request for such materials was conveyed. Did bin Laden specify his requirements at the outset? Did the courier provide him with a sampler pack and ask his leader to choose his favorites? Or was the courier trolling the Internet one night and struck by the thought "Oh, the Sheik will love this"?). It may be, however, as I have argued elsewhere, that pornography has been part of America's framing of the 9/11 attacks from the get-go. This, I have suggested, is demonstrated, most obviously, by the New York Times’ series Portraits in Grief, in which the Times produced obituaries for almost all of those killed in New York by the 2001 terrorist attacks. There, the fundamental repetitiveness of the stories, and desire to produce bodily fluids (in this case, tears), mirrored pornography’s obsession with the same.

Indeed, this mirroring of pornography has been extended by the broadcast networks’ agreement no longer to show the 9/11 footage, except under limited circumstances. For, as Walter Kendrick, points out in his seminal work, The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture (University of California Press, 1997), the word pornography was coined in the nineteenth century following the discovery of a multitude of erotic artifacts during the excavations at Pompeii. Fearing that the masses might be shocked by the frank depictions of carnality and the popularity of the phallus as a civic decoration in ancient world, the archaeologists who discovered the materials placed them in a secret museum accessible only to those with sufficient academic credentials to observe and study them. The very act of hiding the materials nevertheless made them more desirable. Pornography became a taboo and a cultural obsession.
Currently, the Obama administration is vacillating over whether or not to show the pictures of bin Laden’s body. Many in the administration and a number of our elected politicians have seen the photographs, but they are considered too shocking for mass consumption. In this, they are now our most erotic national artifact. Larry Flynt for president?

The Libyan Tragedy

Steven Johnston
University of South Florida

Stalemate seems to be the word most commonly circulated these days to describe the civil war in Libya. Kaddafi remains in power, however tenuously; the resistance continues to fight the good fight, however disorganized and outgunned it may be. Neither side apparently possesses the ability to defeat the other, a situation that could drag on indefinitely. Thus, Libya and its citizens will absorb the vast majority of the death, destruction, and suffering the war inflicts. Here it is important to remember that if not for outside military intervention, Libyan opposition forces would have been crushed weeks ago. Intervention prevented Kaddafi from doing his absolute worst, as he threatened to hunt down and kill opponents in their homes, including their closets. It has also led to the stalemate currently deemed not just problematic but unacceptable, even intolerable. Barack Obama and other Western leaders declare that Kaddafi’s rule must end, but they seem blind to the tragic situation they have created and thus incapable of negotiating it successfully.

Measures required to break the impasse provoke controversy insofar as they mean escalation. The controversy, moreover, can be traced to the nature of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution authorizing action in Libya: the establishment of a no-fly zone and the resort to “all necessary measures” to protect civilians. Thereafter, the United States and NATO decided not to deploy ground troops. Western-led military intervention would thus protect civilians from Kaddafi’s onslaughts, tantamount to crimes against humanity, but it would not put an end to his rule. This was for the Libyans themselves to achieve.

Such “limited” intervention would also allow the United States and its NATO partners to maintain the appearance of neutrality. They thus sought to implement a UNSC mandate to protect Libyan civilians from harm, a realization of the responsibility to protect doctrine which normally falls to sovereign states but which the international community, should the necessity arise, can assume. The idea seems to be that intervention, under certain circumstances, does not violate but actually fulfills sacred sovereign principles.

Critics of intervention argue that military action amounted to taking sides in a civil war, that is, unwarranted interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign nation. Proponents denied this, but their denials lacked conviction and should not have been made. There was no moral or legal equivalence, the intimations of critics notwithstanding. What’s more, humanitarian war can pursue regime change if and when the transgressions that justified intervention (the slaughter or impending slaughter of civilians, for example) would resume once the intervention had concluded and interventionist forces had exited the country in question. If there were any doubt about such an outcome prior to intervention in Libya, intervention itself erased it. Kaddafi was clear about the consequences of action: a long war. He has kept his word and Libya and Libyans have been paying a heavy price for his fidelity.

Kaddafi’s intransigence, it should be said, is by no means exceptional. Governments that suppress, attack, and kill their own citizens in mass numbers may call a halt (or be forced to call a halt) to atrocities when confronted with superior force or the threat thereof, but to believe, let alone assume, that such governments can subsequently be trusted to treat their citizens with all respect due to them borders on the absurd. United States and NATO intervention changed the course of Libya’s insurrection: it prevented a Kaddafi victory and enabled a de facto civil war. Kaddafi’s outrights defeat would have required a much greater intervention, but this was formally ruled out in advance. Thus the current stalemate is the perfection of humanitarian war executed on the cheap. Such warfare may be prosecuted in truncated fashion to secure international support, guarantee domestic support, and preempt undue criticism, but it also guarantees an (ultimately) infelicitous combination of success and failure.

Intervention led by the United States and its NATO partners is complicated by the history of colonialism in the region. The American war in Iraq was patently illegal and the United States has not been held to account. The American war in Afghanistan may have been morally and legally justifiable at the outset, but the Bush regime abandoned it to wage the gratuitous war in Iraq. More importantly, the Afghan war against al Qaeda morphed long ago into a war against the Taliban, for which the United States enjoys no mandate, certainly not with al Qaeda rendered irrelevant years ago. The unseemly glee of Obama and the American public over the presidentially-ordered murder of Osama bin Laden cannot redeem the broader Afghan failure of the past ten years. As for the British and French, they own their own nasty colonial legacies in northern Africa. Still, a deeply problematic history does not automatically delegitimize an intervention sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council, the Arab League, the African Union, and Libyan opposition forces themselves.

Humanitarian war in Libya faces two challenges. First, Kaddafi must be removed from power. If he isn’t, the intervention discredits itself. This is not to deny that his removal will necessarily entail the exercise of sustained violence. Death on a large scale is guaranteed, including the killing of the very civilians intervention aims to protect, as well as other non-combatants, including members of Kaddafi’s family. Here humanitarian war reveals itself to be a tragic undertaking, simultaneously realizing and defeating its stated goals and values. Second, assuming Kaddafi’s removal, what happens in the aftermath? What kind of regime replaces Kaddafi’s? This cannot be known before the fact, or certainly not with any confidence. Many argue that in the absence of such knowledge intervention should not even be considered because action that makes matters worse defeats itself. Here humanitarian war resembles a (re)founding, a project which may or may not succeed. But if there is no way to predict, let alone guarantee success in advance, how can mere uncertainty derail the very effort that might lead to success?

Humanitarian intervention is a roll of the dice. It is creative destruction at once necessary, precarious, and uncertain. Machiavelli’s advice about the ruthless deployment of military force in The Prince seems apt here. Maximize violence in the short run in order to minimize it in the long run. And this is precisely the task intervention does not assume. A more serious sustained conversation about the moral dilemmas inherent in humanitarian intervention needed to take place beforehand. The international community knew the potential problematic costs of action, but it focused instead on the imperative of saving as many lives as possible as quickly as possible. Insofar as “mission creep” was all too predictable as a necessary outcome of intervention, the International community, but especially the United States and NATO, now has the obligation to finish what it started, which means deploying whatever resources are required to help the Libyans finish what they started. This obligation was implicit in the original intervention, the “limited” terms of intervention notwithstanding. Fulfillment of this obligation would bring an end to Kaddafi’s reign and allow the second act of the Libyan drama to unfold. It’s already a tragedy in the making, which does not preclude by itself an unfavorable outcome. The question is: will it also become a farce? If Kaddafi remains in power or Libya is partitioned, the answer would be yes. If Kaddafi is removed from power, the answer would be no, not necessarily, which is the best that can be said in a tragedy.


Simon Stow

The College of William and Mary

"What America wants," William Dean Howells famously observed, "is a tragedy with a happy ending." For many, it seems, the state-sanctioned killing of Osama bin Laden appears to be exactly that. The narrative of "closure" in which the death of bin Laden is supposed to bring an end to the suffering not only of the relatives of the 9/11 victims, but also to the nation itself, has been ubiquitous in the media.

Tragedy is, however, much more complex than that. Tragic theater developed in Greece as a response to the tragic condition in which humanity finds itself: a world of irreconcilable conflicts, incommensurable values, uncertainty, contingency and doubt; a world in which, as my friend Steven Johnston puts it, what is gained is marked by what is lost. Tragedies, it should be said, do not have happy endings.

Tragic protagonists are often literally or figuratively blind. Lacking the complexity of worldview of the plays in which they appear, they stick to a singular perspective that usually seals their unpleasant fates. For the Greeks the word from which we take the modern term 'theater' meant 'seeing place.' Tragic theater offered its audiences a chance to see: a democratic pedagogy meant to help them recognize their tragic predicament; to help them avoid the fate of the plays' protagonists; and to overcome the singularity of perspective that is so damaging to critical reflection and democratic politics.

It was then with some reservation that I watched the outpouring of elation that marked the announcement of bin Laden's death. Large crowds gathered in front of the White House, at Ground Zero, and, more strangely perhaps, at college campuses across the nation (including, it might be noted, at the College of William and Mary where I teach). Each was marked by the waving of flags, the honking of car horns, off-key renditions of the 'Star Spangled Banner,' 'God Bless America,' and the chant, much-beloved of Homer Simpson, of "USA! USA! USA!".

Aeschylus' The Persians has sometimes been read as Athenian gloating over the defeat of their enemies, a reading for which there is much to be said. But, as befits the complexity of tragedy, there is also an acknowledgment that both the Greeks and the Persians are bound by their shared suffering. It is an acknowledgment that is meant to temper the celebration by highlighting the costs of victory, both to the Athenians, and to humanity.

As a resident alien I should perhaps make clear that I have no sympathy for bin Laden; that even in the absence of due process (an absence which gives me the liberal equivalent of Peter Parker's tingling Spidey sense), bin Laden probably got what he deserved. Nevertheless, that I feel that I should have to make this clear suggests the persistence in American politics of the problem that tragic theater is meant to overcome; a view epitomized, perhaps, by the previous president's declaration that you are either with us, or you are with the terrorists. For the record, and indeed, for the Department of Homeland Security, I am most certainly with you, not with the terrorists. As such, I am concerned that the outpouring of jubilation following bin Laden's death bespeaks a blindness common to the protagonists of tragic theater.

Two recent books by about bin Laden and Al Qaeda, Peter L. Bergen's The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al Qaeda (Free Press, 2011) and Michael Scheuer's Osama bin Laden (Oxford, 2011) suggest the uncertainty of the world in which we now find ourselves. Both are experts in the field, both have written compelling, well-researched, thoughtfully-argued books, but neither can agree with the other's account of bin Laden and his role in global terrorism. The Osama bin Laden identified by Bergen was a figure who had overreached and was suffering the consequences of having done so: provoking a war that robbed his organization of their secure base in Afghanistan, and neutralizing both his and its capacity to conduct successful acts of terror. For Scheurer on the other hand, bin Laden remained at the hub of Al Qaeda ongoing battles with the West. Even after bin Laden's death, and in spite of the Obama’s administration’s obvious need and attempts to embrace Scheurer’s bin Laden, we still do not know who, or whether either man, was right. It is a world of uncertainty and conflict in which the gains to the national psyche and the president's approval ratings of bin Laden's death may yet be marked by significant losses. For the other thing that tragedy teaches us is that revenge begets revenge, begets revenge.

Wisdom, Aeschylus observed, comes through suffering. The nation's reaction to bin Laden's death suggests that in spite of the its suffering on 9/11, we may have learned nothing at all.