What Just Happened?
by Michael I. Niman
The Obama vs. Osama smackdown and the speech that followed
The man George W. Bush once promised to get, Western style,“dead or alive,” was assassinated this week under orders of Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama. Late Sunday night, when the news went public, spontaneous crowds amassed around the US, cheering the death of Osama bin Laden.
On a strategic level, perhaps the death doesn’t mean much at all. Al Jazeera political analyst Marwan Bishara, writing hours after the killing, argues that bin Laden was largely “irrelevant,” his revolutionary appeal negated by the so-called “Arab Spring,” which demonstrated the strategic superiority of “people’s power through peaceful means.”
Or maybe it’s just that bin Laden and the movement he personified was so, dare we say, 1990s. The news out of the Middle East is now dominated by narratives of leftist and libertarian uprisings of young, middle-class students and professionals. The leaders they are battling, both US friends and foes alike, represent reactionary social and political agendas akin to the misogyny, hate, and religious intolerance spewed by bin Laden. More telling, sales of bin Laden swag have steadily been declining throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds. The jihad lasted too long, and its conservative adherents have aged out of the hot action, replaced by a more liberal generation who see international imperialism and despotic fundamentalism both as their enemies.
In this media-inundated world, the bin Laden assassination is high drama—political theater played out as spectacle. Hours after President Obama made his “bin Laden is dead” speech to the world, CNN ran the headline, “Bin Laden Death Sends Internet Traffic Soaring.” Multiple press agencies quickly looked to Twitter analytics for the telltale Twitter traffic spike that now verifies the importance of any current event. And the world’s press robotically reacted in tones consistent with their different brands, as if the articles were actually authored by computerized algorithms.
The New York Times ran a headline the next morning, “Wall Street Stocks Wander after News of Bin Laden’s Death.” The “how does it affect Wall Street” mantra was also a constant all day long at NPR. Fox quickly stoked the eternal coals of fear with this lead: “Americans Put on Alert Amid Warnings of Al Qaeda Retaliation.”
Then came all the jubilation, which is quite frightening in its own right. Granted that bin Laden, one of the world’s most outspoken and aggressive social conservatives, was certainly a class-A scumbag. And granted that his vision of a global misogynist theocratic dictatorship would be hell for most of us. And granted also that his tactical strategy of using terror to impose minority tyranny over a majority is why we have revolutions against leaders like him. It still is beneath us as humans to outwardly celebrate his killing. So pardon me for raining on anyone’s parade by using terms such as “bloodlust” to describe mobs celebrating assassinations or “targeted killings.” It’s just that I’m a wee bit uncomfortable with the whole barbarism ethos. We could tastefully be happy that bin Laden is gone and congratulate those who risked their lives to try to bring him to justice. But no: We got spontaneous fireworks in Los Angeles. Time magazine’s Michael Grunwald began his May 2 editorial by writing “This is an exciting day—I can’t remember ever feeling jubilant about someone’s death before…” Vanity Fair’s Todd Purdum wrote that “it was both shocking and giddily uplifting last night to see the cheering throng that flocked to the North Front [of the White House], every bit as ebullient as the British crowds that pressed against the fence at Buckingham Palace on Friday for the much-ballyhooed royal wedding.”
What does all of this hoopla say about us?
It’s as if we’ve been thrown back in time to 14th-century Europe, when mobs would eat their enemies in a blood orgy. Only here it’s virtual. While assassins a world away dumped bin Laden’s lifeless body into the ocean, a group of angrily celebratory Americans patriots chanted “U-S-A” in Times Square.
Blogging for the Wall Street Journal, Phil Izzo wrote that, with this killing, “John Wayne finally caught up with Osama Bin Laden.” It’s like we all live inside of a Hollywood script, and all we needed was a make-believe good guy to vanquish all of our problems in one fell swoop. All of them. With bin Laden’s killing, Izzo seduces his audience with the promise of not only stronger, handsomer leadership but a stronger dollar as well, macroeconomic realities be damned. “The immediate reaction in the financial markets confirms my view that the dollar’s weakness and gold’s strength have been related to the perception that America is in decline,” Izzo wrote, and it gets better. “All we need to do,” he added, “is to dispose of other despots and terrorists in the Middle East…”
And, oh yeah, somehow “cut the federal deficit” at the same time.
If anyone really won the day, it was Barack Obama, who gracefully stepped up for Hollywood’s casting call with what historians of rhetoric will undoubtedly recognize as one of the best short presidential addresses in American history. Even the Dallas Morning News, in the heart of Bush country, wrote in a headline that it was “An Exceptional Speech from Obama, Well Delivered,” as if they were grading his performance.
Talking is what Obama does best, and this was some damn good talking—which was very welcome after eight years of the embarrassing, moronic, oratorical vomitus which the Bush White House would spew on such occasions. This was no “We’re handsome and they’re ugly, and that’s why they hate us” speech. There were no Wild West references. No threats or “Bring ’em on” dares here. No silly wearing of crotch-enhancing flight suits or fighter-jet taxi rides to floating podiums. This was straight talk from a hallway in the White House.
Obama’s speech, which preempted a few cliffhanger TV season finales in the Central, Mountain, and Pacific time zones, never referenced the Bush era “War on Terror” meme. This was the real kickoff to the 2012 presidential campaign, with Obama seducing Bush’s NASCAR dads with sound bites like “We will never tolerate our security being threatened, nor stand idly by when our people have been killed. We will be relentless in defense of our citizens and our friends and allies.” But from Obama, this was not empty rhetoric prematurely ejaculated, like Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech.
Obama prefaced this phrase with a humanistic reflection on the costs of war. “After nearly 10 years of service, struggle, and sacrifice, we know well the costs of war,” he began. “These efforts weigh on me every time I, as Commander-in-Chief, have to sign a letter to a family that has lost a loved one, or look into the eyes of a service member who’s been gravely wounded.” This is a big improvement over Bush’s promise not to play golf in solidarity with families who were losing loved ones in his wars. Obama, by contrast, put a convincing veneer of empathy on what is essentially his rationale for continuing Bush’s wars for what has so far been two more years. In essence, he has proven himself a better Bush than Bush could ever have dreamed of being.
After throwing some red meat to the NASCAR dads, Obama threw a few rice cakes to the lefties as well, adding that, “We will be true to the values that make us who we are.” Progressives imagine he was referencing the old World War Two Why We Fight meme—something about truth, justice, liberty, and the American way. Or (dream on) perhaps he was referencing democracy and social and economic justice. This is champion rhetoric: Everyone imagines he’s talking to them and saying something they want to hear. And, in effect, he was. That’s being presidential.
Where Bush would preface and end almost every speech with some empty reference to September 11—so much so that many started seeing it as the day democracy died, as if we were attacked by both Bush and bin Laden—Obama largely has refrained from September 11 references, until now. In this speech, he reminded us of the victims of that dark day’s attacks: “The empty seat at the dinner table. Children who were forced to grow up without their mother or their father. Parents who would never know the feeling of their child’s embrace.” He touched our national pain, reminding us of “Nearly 3,000 citizens taken from us, leaving a gaping hole in our hearts.”
He went on to use this pain to justify the war in Afghanistan, and the continuing pain that it causes. Like I said, Bush could never defend his own wars like Obama can—make of this what you will. It’s noteworthy here, however, that unlike Bush would have done, Obama never referenced Iraq, the Iraq war, or Saddam Hussein. Perhaps Bush’s big lie, echoed by Fox News, propagandistically connecting the Iraq war to al Qaeda and the 9-11 attacks, is finally fading away.
“In Afghanistan,” Obama explained in his speech, “we removed the Taliban government.” It seems like simple stuff, but again, it’s an improvement to have a president who references Afghanistan and not Iraq in his anti-terrorism screeds. It’s nice to see a president who references these as two different and distinct wars—not simply part of a go-anywhere-and-do-anything “War on Terror.” Perhaps in this silence is the rationale for leaving Iraq. And optimistically, perhaps the past-tense reference to the Taliban sets the stage for leaving Afghanistan—where the only thing the universally despised Taliban despots have going for them politically is the equally despised US presence.
Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at Buffalo State College. His previous columns are at artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com, and available globally through syndication.blog comments powered by Disqus
Issue Navigation> Issue Index > v10n18 (week of Thursday, May 5th) > What Just Happened?
This Week's Issue • Artvoice Daily • Artvoice TV • Events Calendar • Classifieds