The American Psyche?

Revenge Tragedies

Goodness, sometimes I really detest the opinion pieces the SMH puts out there. This one here by Waleed Aly about an episode of ‘Newsroom’, trying to anlayse the so-called psyche of America just takes the cake.

This episode isn’t really about broadcast journalism at all. It’s about America’s relationship with bin Laden and the September 11 attacks. It’s an artefact of our age that helps us define September 11 as a social, cultural and psychological landmark.

And if Sorkin’s world is as accurate on that score as I think it is, the take-home message is this: that for Americans, or at least the American mainstream reflected here, September 11 was deeply personal. These characters are scarcely interested in bin Laden’s death as some kind of strategic gain. They barely discuss anything that approximates the consequences of bin Laden’s killing. But they very clearly exude a spirit of revenge finally being secured.

The newsroom cheers raucously when the news editor announces the news; news anchors jostle for the right to share the triumph with the American people in a manner that seems about more than professional ego; a peripheral character whose father was killed in the Twin Towers withdraws from the celebrations feeling hollow rather than elated, but even she agrees this is a moment for festivity.

And in perhaps the episode’s cheesiest moment of patriotic triumph, a producer trapped frustratingly on a United Airlines plane stalled on the tarmac while his colleagues enjoy the exhilaration of going to air, looks the captain in the eye, then fixes on his badges and stripes, and declares solemnly that “our armed forces killed Osama bin Laden for you tonight”.

Hmm. the article then goes on to argue that the killing of Osama bin Laden was mere revenge, and somehow this makes the act of slaying Osama bin Laden, somehow lacking in greater legitimacy. Well, I hate to break it to Waleed Aly, but the brokerage of revenge is actually one of the most important functions of state. The reason we have states and the judiciary predates the power of kings in Germanic tribes – and many of our law codes come to us out of those kinds of laws.

It pays to understand this a little bit more. Historically speaking, the need to broker the act of revenge exists so that society does not fall into a chaotic feud. If one reads Icelandic sagas such as Njal’s saga, it is pretty clear the purpose of most laws in the Icelandic ‘Althing’ are to do with “making settlements” and by that, we mean brokering peace deals. Revenge is not condoned because going it alone without the wider understanding by society renders the act something that sets off a cycle of violence. This is why the law brokers settlements, and by way of brokering settlements, revenge is also brokered.

The more sophisticated our society has become through history, we have constructed elaborate narratives for what crime and punishment are, and what the point of the penal system might be; but at the heart of the function of the law in the state apparatus is to administer justice, and justice is in most part brokering settlements for grievances and revenge. This is why capital punishment still exists in parts of the world we consider otherwise civilised – like, say, America.

That the point of going after Osama bin Laden and killing him is revenge is not particularly insightful, given that we know how many perished in the 9/11 attacks (and I say this putting aside all the conspiracy theories for a moment). If the United States Government did not exact vengeance on the man who claimed responsibility for the attacks, it would be amiss in its duty of brokering the revenge. After all, it would be illegal for the aggrieved kinsmen to go after bin Laden on their own, seeking to kill him. That’s called a lynch mob.

So it goes without saying that Waleed Aly is willfully misrepresenting what state-sponsored revenge actually is, in order to come at his pithy conclusion:

…Sorkin doesn’t employ the explicit good-versus-evil terms that, say, George W. Bush did. There’s no need. It’s simply assumed. It’s not in the content of the script because it’s in the underlying grammar of American public culture. The Newsroom’s treatment is an artefact because it does nothing more than faithfully reproduce the mythology of bin Laden that prevails amongst its audience.

That is to say, Sorkin treats bin Laden as an icon. Almost in the religious sense. As the show’s star anchor Will McAvoy takes to the air to break the story, the production staff rise to their feet and look on in solemn reverence. Hereabouts it is clear this is not a news broadcast. It’s a rite. A sacrament.
“For the first time in almost three decades the world has no reason to fear Osama bin Laden,” begins McAvoy’s eloquent monologue. It’s powerful. It’s moving. It’s also wrong.

Bin Laden remains potent in death. He is more powerful as a symbol than a field commander, and as such lives longer than himself. That’s the nature of icons.

Now, what is wrong with this? Waleed Aly is in effect complaining that Osama bin Laden has been made into a kind of straw man cipher for Islamists, while mounting his own straw man argument against America’s satisfaction at having had Osama bin Laden killed.

The real complaint we should be leveling is that Osama bin Laden was killed and not captured alive; that his body was disposed at sea without so much as an autopsy. The physical being of Osama bin Laden was sent into the shadows of history pretty much the same way he came into our consciousness – through the murk of Afghanistan and Pakistan local politics and local history.  The real complaint that I for one have about the slaying of Osama bin Laden is how long it took, and the damage it has done in the mean time to our own cherished democracies. In fact it didn’t get done during the tenure of George W Bush as POTUS, which leads us to wonder about all those conspiracy theories out there on the internet.

Be that as it may (as they say in Mafia movies), complaining that Osama bin Laden is understood to be ‘not even political’ but merely ‘evil’ is a bit rich coming from a muslim apologist (who only a couple weeks ago wanted to lend legitimacy to those rioting in Sydney’s streets over some stupid Youtube video). The adage about living and dying by the sword fits Osama bin Laden perfectly – He chose to live by terror. That his death should be shrouded in the state sponsored terror of Navy SEAL Team 6 is entirely appropriate, and complaining about the meaning assigned to Osama bin Laden in the wake of the hit is a bit like complaining that the term ‘monster’ overstates the wrongdoings of say, Stalin or Idi Amin or Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il after they’ve done all their killing and repressing and torture and hell-making.

Somewhere there is a gallery of history’s great assholes; and there is no doubt in most people’s minds that Osama bin Laden has earned his spot in that gallery, well and proper. The only quibble about that is whether he was actually some kind of CIA Black Ops operative blowback asshole as per the conspiracy theories; or whether he was an autochthonous Islamist asshole; but an asshole of historic proportion, I have no doubt that’s what he was. There really isn’t much mileage in arguing that Osama wasn’t an asshole but a projection of the embittered American psyche. You’d have more success splitting his beard hairs at the bottom of the sea where he sleeps with the fishes.


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