Monday, July 18, 2011

Osama Bin Laden, the Great Unifier

When I first saw the headline that Osama Bin Laden had been killed, I assumed it was a nonsense story that a lazy web editor had put online to score hits – you know, like “bacteria discovered on Mars”, or ‘nails from Christ’s cross found’. 

I’m so accustomed to cosmic incompetence from the folk in charge, (most recently stumbling into a war in Libya they don’t want to fight, for instance), that I just couldn’t imagine the US government or the CIA had finally whacked the world’s most wanted man.

But they had. And then, as details emerged of the raid, I saw that the hit on bin Laden was an almost perfect affair- as if scripted and shot in Hollywood with Matt Damon in the role of master assassin. I then spent hours online searching for information, reading everything I could about how bin Laden’s brain had finally met with that fatal bullet.
I enjoyed the detail about a cowardly bin Laden using his wife as a human shield; I also liked the flatly contradictory image of a Rambo-Osama blazing away at the Navy SEALs before one of them popped him.  Tossing the corpse into the sea after a few perfunctorily performed prayers added a bizarre, almost touching detail – apparently the US government sincerely believed that a hastily convened Muslim burial would render infidels killing every extremist’s favorite terrorist somehow more palatable to the world’s violent fanatics. Aw, bless.
Alas, the first two stories were soon dismissed by the White House as false- although the surreal detail of the ‘Sharia’ sea burial remains true at the time of writing.
Next came the Monty Python antics of various Pakistani officials, all  of whom claimed that they were shocked, shocked to learn that bin Laden was living in a luxury compound just a stone’ s throw from the nation’s most prestigious military college! Watching grown men with moustaches lie as badly as a four year old caught peeing in the flowers was even more surreal than Osama’s putatively PC sea burial.
But what surprised me most were the scenes of spontaneous celebration in front of the White House and at Ground Zero. Large numbers of Americans were delighted that Osama was dead, and they were not afraid to show it.
Immediately I remembered the disturbing- no, disgusting- images of men, women and children dancing in assorted Middle Eastern cities immediately post 9/11, as jubilant crowds celebrated the deaths of 3000 or so strangers who had come to work that morning to generate large piles of cash for their employers .
Hm… I thought, feeling rather uneasy, what’s the difference between these happy Americans and (say) those happy Arabs nearly ten years ago?
Actually, the answer is quite simple: Osama bin Laden was a mass murderer, whereas the people who died in the Twin Towers were bankers and stockbrokers and firefighters who hadn’t killed anyone. Celebrating bin Laden’s death is like celebrating the death of a tyrant, or the end of World War II- it marks a victory over evil. Celebrating the deaths of innocent civilians who did you no harm is psychotic and vile.
And yet, and yet… that formulation seemed too simple. Were those happy crowds of ten years ago really celebrating the fact that a bunch of global traders had been killed by a group of cretins turned on by religious violence? And if so, why?
In a flash, I understood that the gulf between the two crowds was not actually as great as it seemed- although not for the pat reasons offered by whiny moral simpletons who argue that all violence is always equally evil.
No, I realized that those crowds had been fed anti Semitic conspiracy theories for years by political and religious leaders who, to conceal their own culpability, blamed the wicked Jews for their nations’ poverty, squalor and misery. A hallmark of such conspiracy theories is the faith that Jews control the world’s money, the world’s governments, and in particular America, and are responsible for all evil because, being Jews, they love evil. Of course, this is a belief on a par with the idea that the British Royal Family is secretly a cabal of evil alien lizards- and yet it is taken seriously by millions. 
In a sense then, those crowds of ten years ago were not cheering the deaths of pin striped foreign stockbrokers, but rather the evil alien lizards responsible for their sufferings. They were wrong of course; but perception matters at least as much as reality.  And thus in death, Osama bin Laden- that man who did so much to turn nations and peoples against each other- finally became the great unifier. He revealed that no matter whether you live in Ramallah or Washington DC, it is only human to hate your enemies, and to rejoice when they die.