When President Obama, summing up the killing of Osama bin Laden, said, “Justice has been done,” the problem wasn’t simply that he misspoke — justice, after all, can only emerge at the end of an impartial judicial proceeding — but that, in so misspeaking, he hit the emotional bull’s-eye.
“Justice has been done.”
We got him, America! Oh yeah, sweet! Who can’t feel the pop of satisfaction in those words? “He should have said, ‘Retaliation has been accomplished,’” Marjorie Cohn pointed out recently at Common Dreams, and that’s true, of course, but the president wasn’t summoning the dry, sober rule of law. He was evoking, just as George W. Bush did before him, the Wild West, America’s deepest font of mythology, where justice, you know, comes from the muzzle of a revolver. As with Geronimo, so with Osama: Wanted Dead or Alive.
“. . . it was the Indians who, by the ambush, the atrocity, and the capture of the white women . . . became the aggressors and so sealed their own fate,” writes Tom Engelhardt in The End of Victory Culture, describing the first mythological enemy we created as we carved a nation out of a continent.
“From the seventeenth century on,” Engelhardt continues, “Americans were repeatedly shown the slaughter of Indians as a form of reassurance and entertainment, and audiences almost invariably cheered.”
In the post-9/11 decade, myth and politics — myth and all phases of American culture — have converged with a certain ferocity that seems unprecedented in my lifetime, and coincides with our transition to a state of perpetual war and economic freefall. As real security for most people nosedives, appeal to myth, especially the myth of the Wild West, becomes the prime tool of governance.
“. . . from this day on,” said Mara Liasson a week ago on NPR, “his Republican opponents will always have to deal with the new and enduring fact that Barack Obama is the president who got Osama bin Laden.”
This says nothing and everything in one fell swoop. The “everything” is mythological: This is a big, big victory for the prez and for America. The “nothing” is . . . everything else. Bin Laden’s death doesn’t end our wars or make us safer. Indeed, anything but. Talk of terrorist retaliation immediately began cycling through the 24/7 media. If Sen. Charles Schumer has his way, the security bureaucracy will create a “no ride” list for Amtrak passengers because some evil, though sketchy, plans were found at bin Laden’s compound targeting the U.S. rail system.
“Even in death,” writes Glenn Greenwald, “bin Laden continues to serve the valuable role of justifying always-increasing curtailments of liberty and expansions of government power.”
The raid and assassination have also led to a resurgence of torture justifications in the media, particularly from Bush-era officials neck deep in war-crime complicity, despite zero evidence that testimony obtained via “enhanced interrogation” or “Rumsfeld interview” yielded any useful intelligence. Could it be, Carla Seaquist wondered in a piece on Huffington Post, that they’re just trying to establish a protective buffer against eventual prosecution for war crimes?
The myth of the Wild West is the myth of necessary violence. It has no limits. It justifies the carpet bombing of civilians. It justifies political assassination, including assassination by drone aircraft (with unlimited civilian casualties allowed, especially if they can be labeled “suspected insurgents”). It justifies the spread of toxic pollutants. It justifies the use of nuclear weapons.
And all it asks of us is a state of endless fear.
“There’s a way in which terrorism is incredibly smart and savvy,” said Suzanne Ross of the Raven Foundation. “If you make someone afraid, they will destroy themselves eventually.”
In several video presentations, Ross and her colleague, Adam Ericksen, examined President Obama’s attempts this past week to call forth a heightened sense of national unity around Osama bin Laden’s assassination. It’s a devil’s bargain, they maintain, because the need for more violence will never end. However, this need — for the next war, the next political assassination — always seems so reasonable. And as part of the bargain, “The meaning you’re making around violence is your own goodness,” Ross said.
The Raven Foundation, along with innumerable organizations and, in all likelihood, a majority of the American populace, want this country to reorganize not around violence and exclusion — good guys vs. bad guys — but around a higher human standard: compassion, inclusion, real justice.
The only way this has any chance of happening is if enough people free themselves of the myth of the Wild West, which reduces these values to the status of the fair maiden rescued at gunpoint.