7 May, 2011 — The Return of the Public
So, Osama bin Laden is dead.
It is a cliche to say that the popular uprisings against dictatorship in Egypt, Syria, Bahrain and elsewhere had marginalised him. The fusion of political Islam and spectacular terrorism for which he was the figurehead no longer holds out the prospect of radical transformation. Mohamed Bouazizi’s decision to set himself on fire in December of 2010 has done far more to change the culture and politics of the Middle East than any number of suicide bombers.
Osama bin Laden had once been a central figure in America’s political narrative. By the beginning of the year he was in danger of disappearing altogether from the public mind. His death has given new salience to the notion of a War on Terror just as it has invigorated the Obama presidency. Fresh from his triumph over Donald Trump at the White House correspondents’ dinner, Obama is now showered with praise by Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld. Osama bin Laden has performed yet another service for the American state system that used him to justify its operations in the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia, and that, according to some reports, has now killed him in front of his daughter.
So perhaps the threat of catastrophe that Osama bin Laden embodied has worked its last political transformation. President Obama is no longer smart but ineffectual, likeable but soft. He is decisive, he is cool. He is a killer.
Osama has transformed a presidency before, perhaps even saved it. In the summer of 2001 Bush was deeply unpopular. His victory over Al Gore in 2000 had been secured only through the good offices of a conservative majority in the Supreme Court. There were credible reports of electoral fraud. His senior lieutenants did not impress informed observers. They seemed like tired and unimaginative relics from the days of Reagan and Nixon. Enron, the largest single contributor to the Bush campaign, was already struggling. In December of that year it would collapse in one of the greatest corporate scandals in America’s already baroque history of boardroom chicanery.
But by then the President was no longer the spoiled inadequate of the previous August. Osama bin Laden had seen to that. He was by then transformed into a decisive and charismatic leader.
Many journalists were glad of the guidance and sense of purpose that the Bush administration was able to give them in the months after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Time magazine’s long-serving defense correspondent Mark Thompson revealed something of this when he spoke of his feelings about Donald Rumsfeld:
Although he hasn’t told us very much, he has been like a father figure.
Thompson had been one of Rumsfeld’s sharpest critics in the summer of that year. Osama bin Laden had restored the proper dynamic between government and the media in America. Daddy was in charge, and Daddy was keeping us safe.
By 2003 many journalists had become quite relaxed about the idea that politicians were father figures. Howard Fineman, again from Newsweek, defended Bush from accusations that he was a cowboy:
If he’s a cowboy he’s the reluctant warrior, he’s Shane… because he has to, to protect his family.
And a year later Andrew Card noted how Bush saw the American people as a ’10-year old child’ who needed, in the words of the Boston Globe, ‘the kind of protection provided by a parent’. Card explained:
It struck me as I was speaking to people in Bangor, Maine, that this president sees America as we think about a 10-year-old child … I know as a parent I would sacrifice all for my children.
The transformation wrought by bin Laden went further. Soon after the attacks Americans discovered that they were living in a ‘homeland’, complete with an office of homeland security. This would soon become a swamp for imagineers from the conjoined worlds of public relations and intelligence contractors. What had once been a republic had already become a nation, thanks in large part to the dramatic use made of the First World War. Now it was to be a homeland, and homelands must be defended.
So, Osama bin Laden has not changed the Middle East, much less the world. But he was hugely helpful to those Americans who wanted to change their country. Through the narrative in which he played a part, and to which he contributed, the Bush administration kept control of the country and avoided impeachment. They infantilised the public, posed successfully as protective fathers, cut taxes for the rich, and watched impassively as the credit system became yet another swamp of criminality and deceptive public relations.
And now Obama looks set for re-election. It is as though his decision to save the financial sector at the cost of millions of jobs and a ballooning national debt has been rewarded. Special operations, helicopter crashes and all, he has risked comparisons with President Carter and prevailed. This is not a one-term administration, it seems.
Inadvertently as ever, Osama bin Laden has made his final contribution to the politics of the United States.