POETIC JUSTICE: 9-11 to Now

W. J. T. Mitchell

Was the killing of Osama bin Laden on May 1, 2011 an act of justice, as Barack Obama claimed?

A little less than ten years ago I departed from the usual reticence of a scholarly journal editor to write a piece entitled “911: Criticism and Crisis.”   As I noted at the time

“The stately pace of the quarterly journal makes it almost impossible to reflect on current events in a timely fashion.  By the time one’s words appear in print, they will already have been overtaken by events.  The horizon of recent history and imminent possibility, the context of choice and decision making will have changed in unforeseeable ways.  What point, then, could there be in producing a timely utterance that will be outdated by the time it is heard?”[1]

The sense of premature untimeliness was enhanced by the feeling that 9-11 was so clearly an inaugural event, the beginning of a radically new period, with all signs pointing to a war that would have no foreseeable ending.

How can we know [I asked then], as we write in this moment of ‘hot’ historical time, what will have been the right thing to say?   The answer, of course, is that we cannot know, and that this might be a reasonable basis for maintaining silence.  A studied and studious silence might be the best strategy in a period of compulsive, noisy talking, a period when every commentator must have an opinion, and every opinion maker is scurrying about to find confirmation of their most cherished convictions. [Ibid]

Ultimately I want to suggest that a certain quietness, if not total silence, might be called for now.  But I also want to suggest that there are a number of crucial qualitative differences between the event of 11 September 2001 and the moment in May 2011.  Perhaps the most obvious difference is that the later moment clearly marks the symbolic end of the so-called global War on Terror that was launched a decade earlier.  Even more than the election of Barack Obama, which produced a renaming of that war to Overseas Contingency Operations but not a real end to the military occupations conducted in its name, the death of Osama bin Laden marks the end of an era, or, more precisely, a kind of nonevent that registers as a signal of an ending that has already taken place.   It is significant that the War on Terror that began with a massive spectacle of erasure on 9-11 should end with the erased image of someone who had been reduced to little more than a hollow icon of a widely discredited movement.   Meanwhile, the onset of the revolutions in the Middle East, the Arab Spring launched in Egypt and Tunisia, has clearly opened a new epoch that has little to do with Osama bin Laden and less with the supposed “clashes of civilizations,” holy wars, and ill-advised “crusades” against “evil” that characterized the preceding decade.[2] The spectre of 9-11 itself, which launched the War on Terror, had probably been supplanted by a global financial crisis that seemed, like most significant historical events, to be happening twice.  The first was in the climactic months of the 2008 presidential election when the world’s banking system seemed ready to collapse; the second occurs as I write, when the phrase “double-dip recession” is on the lips of many economists.  If terror produced paralysis and a mandate during the Bush era to basically do nothing but borrow money and spend it, the recession’s affect has been panic, the classic syndrome of financial crises.    From “Do nothing,” enjoy your tax cuts and buy a new house that you can’t afford, to “Do something!” like blame government for the crisis and try to shut it down.

But there is another shift in the temporality of scholarly criticism and theory worth noting at this moment.   What I have called the stately pace of the scholarly journal is changing in our time with the ubiquity of the Internet and social networking.  This editorial will be the opening statement in the Editors’ Blog of the new Critical Inquiry website to be launched in the fall of 2011, around the anniversary of 9-11.  We do not know what will show up on this blog.  We invite correspondence and commentary of a perhaps less formal nature than our Critical Response feature, which has generated some of the great debates of our time.  See, for example, Jacques Derrida and the debate over apartheid, or Frank Gehry and Saree Makdisi on the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem.

This website will open a new chapter in the life of our journal, one in which timely utterances that break into the seasonal cycle of the quarterly will be much more common.  Already we are featuring an increasing number of online materials, beginning with a forum on the Arab Spring with short essays by Rashid Khalidi, Yaron Ezrahi, and Ariella Azoulay, a debate on Literary Darwinism with Jonathan Kramnick and a group of interlocutors, a debate about The Wire with William Julius Wilson, Linda Williams, Patrick Jagoda, and Kenneth Warren, and Hilary Chute’s interview of Alison Bechdel.[3]

So perhaps it is just good luck that the launching of Critical Inquiry’s new website occurs at the moment when the 9-11 era comes to a certain kind of ending and something new seems to be dawning. In any case, what follows are the first reflections of this editor on the possibility of making the death of bin Laden something more than a momentary triumph but what Barack Obama has called a “teachable moment.”

First, the meaning of this event will be debated endlessly, or at least one hopes so.  The danger is, of course, that it will not be debated, that it will simply be reduced to a clear moral lesson about the righteousness of American justice, the defeat of evil by goodness, a major victory in the War on Terror, accompanied by the usual stern reminders that this war must go on.  Insofar as this teachable moment is taken as a vindication of the whole concept of the War on Terror, it will be a huge missed opportunity to actually learn something.  What should we learn?  What calls for reflection?  First, the historical irony that millions of people have been displaced, and tens of thousands have died or had their lives destroyed not just because of what this man did but because of what the US has done in response to what he did.  We invaded two countries, Afghanistan and Iraq.  We did so with professedly noble aims deeply mixed with self-interest (oil) and passion (revenge).  We have established a weak and thoroughly corrupt puppet regime in one country and set off a sectarian civil war in the other.  We have huge occupation forces in both countries; we call them wars, but they cannot be won.  Osama bin Laden did not do these things.  We did them all in the name of goodness, rightness, and justice.

Second, some people think that bin Laden’s death means that the existential threat to the US is now ended, even though al Qaeda is still capable of mounting attacks.  But actually there never was an existential threat to the US from any outside force.  That is not the way terrorism works.  Terrorism does not conquer by military force.  It is a psychological tactic designed to demoralize a nation, to turn it against itself, causing it to destroy its own constitution.  The madness of the so-called War on Terror and the subsequent state of emergency that has justified the erosion of the Bill of Rights is the real existential threat to the United States.

I worry about a number of things, then.  The exultant shouts of “USA! USA!” and the triumphalism and jingoism that are among the least attractive traits of the American character;  the continual harping on the suffering of the 9-11 victims, and the absolute silence about the three million Iraqis whose lives have been ruined or snuffed out by our actions.  When the crowds gathered at Ground Zero on Sunday, 1 May to celebrate the killing of bin Laden, a remarkable moment was observed by Peter Eleey, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art’s P.S. 1:

“At one point among the nationalist chants last night, a guy got up on his friends’ shoulders and started asking the crowd for a moment of silence for those killed on 9/11. The people around him started shushing, and turning to those around them, trying to spread the word of silence. “A moment of silence — pass it on,” people said to one another beneath the patriotic din, and for a few moving minutes it seemed possible that all of the shouting, cheering, singing, and flag-waving might briefly stop. But soon it became clear that people couldn’t hear the quiet spreading. Gradually, and perfectly, the voices demanding silence got louder and louder, until they drowned themselves out and got lost amidst the returning howls of U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A.“[4]

President Obama, as always, tried to hew to a middle course in his announcement of the killing.  He avoided any boasting or vaunting, providing instead a quiet and solemn account of the sequence of decisions and events that led up to this moment.  But the moment of truth (or its opposite) came when he declared that justice has been done.

Consider the question of justice.  Let’s be clear.  This was not justice in any legal or human rights sense.  No evidence was presented before any legitimate tribunal.  It was the assassination of a declared enemy, an act of extrajudicial execution in another (supposedly allied) nation.   Ten years after 9-11, it was justice only in an ideological sense, that is, justifiable in relation to a set of strongly held beliefs, passions, and interests.  It was vigilante justice, the justice of the powerful against the weak, of a right produced by might.  Bin Laden’s nihilistic fanaticism was grounded in resentment, humiliation, and a long history of grievances against European and American imperialism in the Middle East.  It was a philosophy of revenge, and the killing of bin Laden was, similarly, an act of revenge for his responsibility for 9-11.

Of course you can always find a lawyer to defend the legality of anything, a tactic the Bush administration perfected when it hired Berkeley law professor John Yoo to re-define torture as an act causing “a physical condition or injury sufficiently serious that it would result in death, organ failure, or serious impairment of bodily functions,” which he justified by appealing to the extraordinary conditions of a War on Terror.[5]  This left plenty of scope for Bush to claim that he was acting lawfully.  And Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz has now mustered a legal defense of “targeted killing” based on the Israeli practice of assassinating Palestinian militants.  Dershowitz notes the inconsistency of those who do not question the legality of Bin Laden’s execution, but who condemn Israeli assassinations, which he regards as “not only legal and moral,” but “praiseworthy.”[6]  Since the state of exception inaugurated by the War on Terror can be used to justify anything, however, it is not clear why one needs a lawyer to generate legalistic defences.  Why not simply say that killing is right and just and legal because we say it is?[7]

Was the killing of Osama a form of poetic justice?   Perhaps.  But we should specify exactly what kind of poetry.   There is a literary genre that goes back to Seneca and the Romans, perfected by Shakespeare, and Americanized in both the practice of lynching and in the Hollywood western.  It’s called the revenge tragedy, and it invariably involves cries of “justice” accompanied by terrible acts of violence which often result in the destruction of the avenger along with his victim.

And it is poetic justice in the most literal sense, insofar as it involves two of the oldest poetic techniques, assonance and rhyming:  Barack Hussein Obama has killed Osama bin Laden.  The figurehead of international violent Arab resistance to American dominance is killed on the orders of a man with an Arab name, who is suspected of being a secret Muslim and accused routinely of not even being an American.  Obama kills Osama.  There’s a certain poetry in that.  It is a poetry so compelling that it produced involuntary slips of the tongue on Canada’s Global TV and even typographic substitutions, as when Fox News announced the death of Obama bin Laden in its May 2 broadcast. Even more remarkable was the hapless anchorwoman of Canada’s World News, who found herself substituting Obama for Osama in statement after statement.[8]

Fig. 1: Fox News reports the death of Obama bin Laden

And then there is the question of the war of images that has constituted the war on terror.  Does this bring it to an end?  In a certain sense, yes.  This is Obama’s “Mission Accomplished” moment, and it has a certain reality that Bush’s embarrassing photo op did not.  But in other senses, it is clearly not a moment of closure.  Most of the 9-11 victims interviewed rejected the idea of closure, emotional or otherwise.  All the experts on counterterrorism insisted that the danger of an attack is now higher than ever.  And for the Arab world, who probably lost more lives to Al Qaeda and Bin Laden than did Americans, the destruction of a man who was, at his peak, never representative of the vast majority of Arabs or Muslims,  and often little more than an iconic projection of American paranoia, drew little more than a shrug.  Bin Laden was, after all, an American creation, armed, financed, trained, and produced during the Cold War as a counterforce to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.  He and his mujahedeen were our dirty little weapons against communism, weapons that then turned against us.  We are the ones who made him into the personification of global terrorism, the icon of Islamic fundamentalism, and the archenemy of goodness in the world, the Great Satan.  We are the ones who made him into Uncle Osama, the counterpart and twin of Uncle Sam, recruiting a generation of young Americans to liberate Iraq.   We are the ones who transformed al Qaeda from a small criminal organization into a global ideology with franchises in many countries.  We are the ones who insisted on cloning terror with our bombings of civilian populations and armies of occupation.[9]

Figure 2. "Uncle Osama," The New York Times, 25 Sept 2002. http://www.tompaine.com/images/dynamic/316.pdf

We are the ones, in fact, who came up with the whole myth of a War on Terror that is an unwinnable fantasy and an excuse for the destruction of our own constitution on the grounds that we are in a permanent state of emergency.  So now we have destroyed the iconic enemy, the image of the archterrorist.  But it is notable how difficult it is to destroy an image, even an image that had become as hollow as Osama bin Laden.   It is widely acknowledged that he no longer had much operational control over the decentralized networks of al Qaeda.  His main purpose in life had become simply to stay alive and elude being killed or captured.   There were no telephone or internet connections in his compound, no media to keep him connected to the vast network he had spawned.   His life had been reduced to the bare minimum of keeping alive an image that had all its practical meaning evacuated, leaving only an ideological shell.   He and his progeny played no role during the continuing Arab Spring and were in fact usurped by the articulate, democratic young women and workers who overturned regimes across the Middle East.  Nevertheless, it was not enough to kill Bin Laden.   We had to disappear him from the world.

At the time of bin Laden’s assassination, it looked like it might be necessary to make him reappear again through the  images of his dead body that would testify to the truth of his death.  (Donald Trump was demanding to see the long form of  Barack Obama’s birth certificate at the time;  we fully expected him to demand a copy of bin Laden’s death certificate).   On the other hand, and quite paradoxically, his final image—the corpse itself—had to utterly vanish from the world, to be rendered invisible and unlocatable.   The New Yorker’s cover on 16 May 2011 articulated perfectly the paradoxical persistence and disappearance of his image by depicting him in a trompe l’oeil image of a partially erased drawing, the eraser itself lying on the surface of the drawing, with the discreetly appropriate title, “Rubbed Out.”[10]  This phrasing came ominously close to suggesting that the killing of Obama was like a mob execution, carried out by the contemporary equivalent of Murder, Inc.   This is probably not what The New Yorker wanted to say, but then images and their captions have a funny way of escaping the control of our intentions.[11]

The US  dumped Osama’s body in the ocean to prevent it from ever finding a location that might become hallowed ground, a site of pilgrimage.   Of course his image, endlessly recycled on the news media with the familiar file footage of him strolling in the Afghan landscape, hunkering down with his colleagues in thickly carpeted rooms, looking for all the world like a holy man quietly preaching peace while urging his followers to suicidal destruction, is now everywhere.   Osama is now an oceanic, global presence—or absence—as only befits a burial at sea.  We killed his body, but his image will live on, fading in and out of focus.  Like the two bodies of religious sovereignty Osama is both dead and forever alive, as in the formula,  “The king is dead; long live the king.”   The war is over, but the beat goes on.  How about a teachable moment of quietness, if not silence?

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[1] W. J. T. Mitchell, “911: Criticism and Crisis,” Critical Inquiry 28 (Winter 2002): 567.

[2] See “The New Arab Spring,” criticalinquiry-ee.uchicago.edu/ariella_azoulay_rashid_khalidi_timothy_michael_and_yaron_ezhrahi_on_the_new

[3] See Online Features, criticalinquiry-ee.uchicago.edu/online_features

[4] Peter Eleey, email to author, date

[5] John Yoo, Memorandum for William J. Haynes II, General Counsel of the Department of Defense, 14 Mar. 2003, p. 39.

[6] Alan Dershowitz,  “‘Targeted Killing’ of bin Laden Just, Legal,”  Newsmax.com  May 3, 2011, http://www.newsmax.com/AlanDershowitz/dershowitz-bin-laden-israel/2011/05/02/id/394880

[7] Northwestern University law professor Bernardine Dohrn reflects on the question of legality as follows:   “Aside from Dershowitz’s crazed response, it is justified as being proportional and with a legitimate military objective and a legitimate military target (among the legal know it alls on the web today)  I think it was proportional, but not self defense and not a law enforcement action (which it could have been 9 years ago).   E-mail correspondence, May 3, 2011.

[8] See Critical Inquiry Online Features for a video.

[9] See W. J. T. Mitchell, Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9-11 to the Present (Chicago, 2011).

[10] Gürbüz Doğan Ekşioğlu, “Rubbed Out,” The New Yorker, 16 May 2011. Ekşioğlu has done several covers for The New Yorker in a distinctively surrealist style.

[11] The cover is by Turkish artist Gurbuz Bogan Eksioglu, who has done several covers for The New Yorker in a distinctively surrealist style.

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Filed under 9-11, Arab Spring, Arts, Critical Inquiry, Criticsm, death of bin Laden

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