How do you kill a concept? Common wisdom is that you can’t. Just ask Bruce Wayne.
Except we just did. Just ask Osama bin Laden. Or rather, ask the Obama administration, who skillfully and quite brilliantly designed a way to not just capture an enemy of the state, but effectively neutralize the symbol he embodied. The former victory was tactical, and to be honest, almost an implicit embarrassment: according to Neil deGrasse Tyson, finding one dirty little fugitive took as much time and money as putting a man on the Moon. The latter victory, though, looks like a decisive strategic coup.
I couldn’t help but be reminded of Mark Millar’s Nemesis character when considering the blankness left by bin Laden (and bin Laden™)’s removal. Where there was once a kind of “bad Batman” out there, more than just a man, haunting our collective consciousness like a demon, inspiring others by example and, later, by simple nose-thumbing existence, now there is just a Nothing: no body, no image, no locus for more bloodlust or vengeance or worship or debate. Just a lacuna in the text, a literal dead end.
To quote the editor of Fast Company Design, whom I blog for:
All we’re left with is old images of Bin Laden, and the image of a stern, dignified President Obama. There is nothing there for Bin Laden’s cohort to twist and remix for their purposes. There is no whiff of American savagery, and no whiff of personal vendetta. Merely justice.
This isn’t justice as erasure, even though we did “rub him out.” This is something more abstract, and more quintessentially contemporary: justice as absence. The man has been disappeared. But so has his symbology, his meme, his brand. They’ll endure as memories and fixed images but (in all likelihood) won’t adapt or evolve — or at least, not in the same virulently powerful way.
The Obama administration’s expert framing of justice against bin Laden as a kind of anti-communication has an unintentional consequence, though: some Americans don’t seem to quite know how to process it. Justice is something we’re used to knowing when we see it — and feeling it — but that bin Laden-shaped lacuna may leave us at a bit of a dead end, too. (Especially after ten years.) My first reaction to the news was … well, I’m not quite sure what to call it, but it felt about as emotionally cathartic or “closure”-ey as noticing that a CD suddenly skipped on a distantly playing stereo system. Or that the wi-fi went out for a couple minutes. Or — and maybe this is the “truest”-feeling analogy I can think of — that the pointer onscreen briefly turned into a spinning beachball as “the program” called “bin Laden is still out there” suddenly hung, then halted… and then, doink, process killed, pointer restored.
Anyway, it bugged me all morning, that feeling of being gypped out of a head-on-a-pike moment and wanting one to come. To me, images like this feel moving and triumphant, but still somehow indirect. (Not for those firemen, though.) But after some reflection, and reading Cliff’s lucid essay, this dead end is actually more satisfying than “Mission Accomplished” ever could be. The memory-leaking malware called Osama bin Laden is no longer a drain on system resources. Debug complete. End of line.
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