Bin Ladism as an ideology—indiscrimination between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, jihadism against American imperialism; death to America, the Jewish state, and the Saudi monarchy; and the possibility of an all encompassing Islamic state and umma—may not survive as a totality, assuming there was one. What is important to note is that in their more basic elementary fragments, such elements survive on their own, rather than as a totality, in various areas, and in varying degrees, within the Arab and Islamic worlds. The only thing that Bin Ladism adds to such common sense notions is their actualization in the context of a violent revolutionary struggle. In other words, slogans are redeemed inefficient in their own right—they’re only words—and could only be brought to justice (and to earth) through revolutionary struggle. Hence the jihadism that Bin Laden supported and financed in Afghanistan under the Soviet occupation (1979–1989), the attacks against U.S. embassies and American military and civilians, and, last but not least, the spectacular character of 9/11 (where, for once, reality supersedes fiction), which has set new benchmarks that the Qaida was unable to replicate anymore. It is therefore such revolutionary struggle that sets Bin Ladism apart from the rest—not the fragmentary content of its ideology—and which precisely prevents it from having a strong line of adherents among the Arab and Muslim youth. Moreover, since the Qaida was never set as a territorial organization, the way Hamas and the Hezbollah are, it floats around as a virtual nation-state without any concrete links to a population. Hence the excitement about Bin Ladism has waned rather than accelerated since 9/11, and by the time Bin Laden died this past week, he knew that his Revolution would never materialize. This is not to say that his ideology as a totality or in its fragments is not there anymore. Without the idea of a Global Revolution most of Bin Ladism would be sheer common sense. Bin Laden died not only defeated and isolated (probably “bored,” said the New York Times), but in a home with no connections (not even a phone line or an Internet connection), as if waiting for death to come by, and it finally came by way of the Obama Administration. By contrast, when Saddam Hussein was caught, stood trial, then executed, thanks to a poor coordination between the Bush Administration and the Iraqi federal government, he had plenty to do and was at the height of his powers. In Bin Laden’s unfortunate case, the Grand Revolution looks like a utopianism that was bound to fail and rapidly disappear, while the Baathist power structure, as epitomized by the likes of Saddam Hussein (and Asad, Mubarak, and the rest), is there to stay. Let us not forget that, in spite of the Arab revolts, all the infrastructures of power are still there untouched. By contrast, Bin Ladism, which has built its ideology on nonsensical fragments commonly found in Arab political discourses, had no way to materialize in practice. Bin Laden therefore died like a bored university professor who some time ago produced lots of words, but whose main achievements were decades behind rather than ahead of him. If, as has often been noted, the young who are taking it to the streets in the Arab world are not using anti-imperialist slogans, but are rather coming through with more concrete demands, it is because in most instances they’re not the ones behind state and party organizations; hence the slogans of the protesters are no indication that the Arab political discourse of the modern nation-state is yet shifting in another direction. Caught in a globalized capitalist world, the modern nation-state is unable to set itself into practices that make sense locally, that is, for the disfranchised populations whose per-capita income and modes of living are far off from their counterparts in advanced liberal societies.
Even though president Obama took on his behalf the decision not to publish the photos and videos of Bin Laden’s body with his head and body torn with bullets, what the White House decided to release instead is what ultimately became “the” photo of the event: the group around the president which knew of the Bin Laden operation, and which was able to watch it “live,” with a direct commentary from CIA director Leon Panetta. Ever since the Nuremberg trials, the West has at great pains set for itself the task to prosecute crimes against humanity, wherever these may have occurred. Since then, many of such crimes which have either touched on the peripheries of Europe (Serbia and Kosovo), Africa, and the rest of the world, were also subjected to tough investigations and prosecutions against the persons or groups who committed them. Since groups are impossible to prosecute, it was indeed those who “represented” them that generally stood trial. The idea here is not so much revenge per se, as much as a willingness to “represent” evil, show it, and bring to public life those who are allegedly responsible for such crimes. The important thing here is therefore the publicity of all such operations: instead of the vendetta feuds that were normally in use until World War II, the aim here is to make the process public, whether the hearings where the perpetrators are openly accused of their crimes, the rebuttals by lawyers and culprits, or the decisions themselves by judges and magistrates. Hence within the whole judicial process that became the norm in 19th-century Europe, and which replaced the old system by ordeal, everything has to be carefully examined and judged accordingly. In the case of Bin Laden, the decision was made, which was never admitted as such openly, to bring him dead rather than alive, hence a process à la Nuremberg was out of question, and would have created an impossible process to manage logistically or otherwise. But then justice was rendered, at least in the grand north American tradition, of punishing “the one” who was “known” to be behind the 9/11 massacres and other killings as well. What is still missing in all this, however, is due process and a fair trial, hence the importance of the photo released by the White House. The photo publicizes the decision-making process and provides it with an aura of legitimacy. It does so by humanizing the protagonists-as-decision-makers, beginning with president Obama himself, who appears not only stone-faced, but more importantly, not even as the central character. You’ll have to look well to find him, and there he appears on the edge of the table, as if sitting on his own and oblivious of the others. What the protagonists are watching, we’re unable to see, and we’ll have to make up for such a gap in our minds, as the best of Italian and Iranian neorealism have taught us. We’re nearly sure that they’re watching the operation unfold, but which moment exactly—the decisive one where bin Laden was shot dead?—and does it really matter to know? The photo “works” precisely because it adds suspense to the hors-champs, incorporating the unseen and out-of-frame within the suspended narrative, while capturing le moment décisif (Henri Cartier-Bresson) at a decisive moment that we’re unable to see and determine. The photo, in other words, adds a touch of “realism” in a secretive process, handled, as we can witness, mostly by mid-aged family men whose life was devoted to the Washington belt, but who manage to appear here in their more humane unseen self, like weekend family men and women watching a good TV show. The monstrosity of the act of killing Bin Laden, the precision and ruthlessness with which it was executed, add to the importance of the photo by humanizing the protagonists. Even though the president made the final decision, and was liable for it, it was, indeed, group work that finally mattered (as should be the case in a liberal democracy)—and the photo precisely underscores the collective aspect of the team work. In the absence of a fair trial, had Bin Laden survived, the legitimacy of the killing appears well founded, precisely because of the team work which was publicly revealed thanks to this unique photograph—and to the sublime work of ideology.
The photo was taken on May 1 2011, and uploaded on Flickr a day later:
President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. Seated, from left, are: Brigadier General Marshall B. “Brad” Webb, Assistant Commanding General, Joint Special Operations Command; Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Standing, from left, are: Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; National Security Advisor Tom Donilon; Chief of Staff Bill Daley; Tony Binken, National Security Advisor to the Vice President; Audrey Tomason Director for Counterterrorism; John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism; and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Please note: a classified document seen in this photograph has been obscured. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)