The death of Osama bin Laden is far more important for the United States than it is for Islamic terrorism. While the shooting of Al Qaeda’s leader will certainly damage the morale of would-be jihadists around the world, the most significant impact will be at home.
The events of September 11th 2001 were deeply shocking for Americans, unaccustomed to viewing large-scale illegitimate violence on domestic soil. The Bush Administration adeptly incorporated this sense of shock into the narratives that would graft meaning onto what became ‘9/11’. Politicians and the public agreed that September 11th was the day that changed the world.
Speaking of 9/11 came to operate in a similar manner to speaking of the Holocaust. Saying ‘September 11th’ invoked deep memories of trauma as well as the correct solution to rectify this loss: fight and kill terrorists. It is necessary to recall this process of constructing and remembering September 11th in order to make sense of the spontaneous scenes of jubilation outside the White House and at Ground Zero.
In late 2001 Bush taught Americans how to think about the ‘new’ threat of terrorism. His speechwriter David Frum has recalled that bin Laden was deliberately portrayed as literally satanic: a pure embodiment of evil. And this Manichean thinking was wedded seamlessly to the language of the Old Wild West. Bin Laden was wanted ‘Dead or Alive’.
In 2002 Bush made light of American desires to see bin Laden killed. On the campaign trail for midterm Congressional elections, jokes about the irrelevance of whether bin Laden was captured or killed resonated with Bush’s core voters. Whether America brought her enemies to justice or justice to her enemies, Bush reassured that it did not matter, as justice would be done.
In the ten years that have passed since September 11th, America’s inability to capture bin Laden has eaten away at the top brass in the United States. It was one of Bush’s principal regrets on leaving office. And Dick Cheney was left to find success in the avoidance of a second 9/11. Since his escape into Pakistan during the Battle of Tora Bora in late 2001, bin Laden has proven infuriatingly elusive for the United States Government, Intelligence Services and Army.
On May 1st 2011, President Obama was finally able to announce that this now mythical enemy had met his death at the hands of American Special Forces. The announcement initiated an outpouring of joy for ordinary Americans, for whom bin Laden’s continued existence had become a source of acute discomfort and an affront to American values. Their celebrations reflected the successful resolution of a story that had dragged on far longer than expected. And it was a resolution yearned for across America.
In Britain it is difficult to appreciate the American context. Calls to stop and reflect on the deaths of a million people since September 11th are in marked contrast to American jubilation. And jokes about the sad loss of an Arsenal fan are unthinkable in the United States. In the United States, Osama bin Laden was the face of an evil that has redefined America, restructuring its politics and society over the last ten years. His death marks the partial healing of a national wound.
For President Obama there is no single event that could have better improved his presidential image, polling figures and re-election prospects. Bin Laden’s death is vindication of the re-shaping of American efforts in the ‘War on Terror’ away from Afghanistan and towards the ‘AfPak’ region. It is vindication that Iraq was mere distraction: a dumb war. And it is vindication of both his own identity as a patriotic American and a capable Democratic Commander-in-Chief. For President Obama, as we approach the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and American troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, the timing could hardly have been better.
Dr Jack Holland,
Lecturer in International Relations
University of Surrey
Jack appeared on BBC Surrey on Tuesday 3rd May to comment on the death of Bin Laden to listen again on BBC iplayer. http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p00g9f6r/Surrey_Breakfast_with_Nick_Wallis_03_05_2011/
Jack appeared on BBC Surrey and Sussex mid-morning programme on Wednesday 4th May from 8 minutes in to 20 minutes. here http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p00gb22g/Danny_Pike_04_05_2011/
- ‘From September 11th 2001 to 9-11: From Void to Crisis’, International Political Sociology, 3:3 (2009) pp.275-292.
As well as (recent relevant selection only):
- ‘Australian Identity, Interventionism and the “War on Terror”’, with McDonald, M., in Siniver, A. (ed.), International Terrorism Post 9/11: Comparative Dynamics and Responses, (London: Routledge, 2010).
- ‘Blair’s War on Terror: Selling Intervention to Middle England’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, (forthcoming, 2011).
- Framing the War on Terror, forthcoming book.
- ‘Howard’s ‘War on Terror’: A Conceivable, Communicable and Coercive Foreign Policy Discourse’, Australian Journal of Political Science, 45:4, (2010), pp.643-661.
- ‘Shocked and Awed: How the War on Terror and Jihad Have Changed the English Language, by Fred Halliday’, book review, Critical Studies on Terrorism, (forthcoming, 2011).
- ‘When you think of Afghanistan, think of Poland: Teaching Americans ‘9-11′ in NBC’s the West Wing’, Millennium Journal of International Studies, 40:1, (forthcoming, 2011).
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Chris, thank you for your thoughtful comment. I’m a little rushed, so this will be brief.
You’re right. This is not the first ‘9/11’ and the term is a politically charged one. Stuart Croft has pointed out that the term Americanises the event and establishes a timeless (no year) quality. The term also potentially removes the need for contemplation as its meaning and the necessary response have become relatively fixed and homogenous. Croft therefore insists on using the phrase “the second American September 11th” to make the point about other 9/11s in the US and beyond e.g. Chile.
On ‘affect’: It’s perhaps best to think of this as ’emotion/feeling’, although these are often linguistic descriptions of ‘affect’ which is somehow prior to our attempts to describe it (think of the immediate gut level feelings the events of September 11th induced). Ty Solomon is doing some excellent work on this, see his website here: http://www.tysolomon.com/research.html . He also has an article forthcoming in the Review of International Studies on this topic.
On cook: A good point. It’s interesting that Blair’s doctrine of international community hijacked Cook’s more human rights focussed foreign policy vision. I have an article forthcoming on just this topic in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations, titled ‘Blair’s War on Terror: Selling Intervention to Middle England’, which might be of interest.
Thinking about 9/11, I am always impressed by the unremarked ambiguity in this term “9/11”. I am thinking of the other 9/11, that of 1973. The death of Allende (now topical again) was also a baleful event, far-reaching in its significance. And part of its significance is precisely its apparent invisibility, which speaks volumes about power in the world.
What happened to Robin Cook’s idea that “Our foreign policy must have an ethical dimension” (published in the Guardian 12 May 1997)?
Thanks for your comment, Joe. And thanks for reading the blog here at cii. Some of your post is a little hard to follow, so I will address only your one clear statement at the start: that the events themselves were the narrative, and Americans did not need to be taught any narrative.
I think this is an interesting and commonplace perception, which is partly correct. There is a tendency in much critical literature to jump to the words and framings of policy elites. Important as these are – and I do believe you are wrong to downplay the role of elite discourse after September 11th – you do inadvertently highlight an area of research that requires further exploration.
In an earlier article (‘Void to Crisis’), I spent a lot of time reporting in the experience of the events of September 11th for ordinary Americans. What is frequently missed by many existing critical accounts is that the events of September 11th were immediately felt and perceived as a moment of temporal rupture, a shock, and out of the ordinary. This affect (which precedes language) is an underexplored feature of what made the events so significant. At cii we are acutely aware that it is imperative to work in an interdisciplinary fashion. And to explore the affect of September 11th requires a better understanding of biological and neurological processes. In lay terms, gut level responses matter and we should take them seriously, which means working with scientists as well as social scientists.
Within a Politics and International Relations literature, you might like to look up the work of Jenifer Edkins on Trauma and David Campbell’s ‘Time is Broken’. And William Connolly’s work on ‘neuropolitics’ is particularly groundbreaking, influential and persuasive. I have also recently written an article (currently under review) which seeks to connect these pre-linguistic responses with their later incorporation within dominant discourses. It is this incorporation that partly accounts for the resonance and dominance of such narratives. There is a long line of research which shows the importance framing events and using language in particular ways. Particularly good on the construction of ‘9/11’ are Richard Jackson’s Writing the War on Terrorism (see also his blog), Stuart Croft’s Culture, Crisis and America’s War on Terror, and Sandra Silberstein’s War of Words. All of these writers, and I, would contest assertions that the events ‘spoke for themselves’. Indeed, ‘9/11’ was framed in different ways in different contexts. Even within the United States there was no one objective reading of September 11th, what it meant for Americans, or for future American foreign policy. That is what makes these narratives so interesting and so important.
What does it mean, to “explore the affect of September 11th”? This is stretching the meaning of “explore the effect” in a way I don’t follow, although I suspect the irregular grammar is a part of your point.
Bush didn’t have to “teach Americans” to abide by some narrative, the events were the narrative. Were you at the time of majority at the time it happen, you might stand a better chance of looking back at those events with an accurate, factually founded basis.
The supposition is about as real as some dewey-eyed kid’s notion that there is some sort of “big book of international law”, as though it was no different that the highway code, that can be structured to fit ones’ ideological uses.
It is not a form of jurisprudence. It is a field of study of the interaction of laws across the boundaries of one ligitimate, publicly acclimated legal jurisdiction across the border from another.
Those who believe that it’s a platform to litigate whatever moral vanity that appeals to them need to ask what an externalized law-making mechanism will do to the foundation of the laws they accept to be imposed willingly on themselves.
If you wrote this whilst you were in the studio with me this morning I salute your impressive multitasking and covert key-stroking. Good to meet you this morning and thanks for being here for the whole two hours.
Thanks, Nick. It was good to meet you and I enjoyed being in the studio… I hope to come back!