The big news broke on Twitter. Of course it did. Soon someone by the name of Oprah said, “Does this mean the war is over?” and then someone retweeted her, which is how I know. Don’t go thinking I follow people named Oprah! Now, either this woman is incredibly naive, or she’s developed a dangerously arid sense of humour, or she’s mildly retarded. Or, as is the way of Twitter, she just wanted to say something before everyone else did, even if that meant forgoing all kinds of “thinking” about it.
Even if Sen. Hillary Clinton hadn’t said so, we would know that the “war on terror” would continue with or without Osama bin Laden. We’d consider how crazy-unlikely it is that al-Qaeda, with all of its decentralized power, was operating only at the command of a shadow figure, without which it would fall apart faster than Two and a Half Men without Charlie Sheen (fingers crossed). We might also feel like the war wasn’t so much about bin Laden, and we wouldn’t be feeling wrong.
It was the seeming impossibility of finding OBL that made the prolonged fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the perpetuating of fear and irrational patriotism and hatred toward the “other,” all so possible. Maybe they couldn’t find bin Laden because they didn’t want to, deep down, where terror resides. I don’t mean I know anything. Neither do you. I just mean “maybe.” Wasn’t it more effective, for the purposes of war, to dangle the “face of evil” like a carrot, always a few feet ahead of the horse? I mean, predator drone?
Being Canadian, I’m not so much “allowed” to have ideas about this (but if you made it this far, you might as well struggle on). When at the end of a long night I tweeted a David Letterman joke—Oprah? Uma? Osama? Obama?—one of my New York acquaintances replied, “get your own tragedy.” Sure. And yet. The event of 9/11 belongs in part to everyone who had been affected by the superpower of the United States before then, which is to say everyone, basically, plus anyone who had to go through airport security (body scanners!) afterward. This terrorist imagination inhabits us all. I didn’t say that; Baudrillard did. Go knock on his grave.
What made terrorists scary is that they challenged humanity’s most basic assumption: that, above all, we want to live. Don’t we? And yet “they,” the al-Qaeda bombers, the suicide missionaries, don’t. How can we understand that? If we don’t understand it, how can we not be terrified? In the simplest way, that’s how terrorism works.
You fight death with death, suicide with suicide. The images of people jumping from burning towers were horrific, and they were prophetic. The American empire is widely felt to be collapsing. The war in Iraq was, too, a suicide mission. It can’t succeed; it also won’t stop now. But inasmuch as it was and is a war on terror, there’s now a break in the fighting. Pay attention: I didn’t say, and no one really says, the war on terrorism. It isn’t that. It’s the war on America’s own terror, all of our own terror, the terror of the unknowable and the unthinkable: that we might not be right.
The revenge-killing of Osama bin Laden is hugely symbolic. It’s only symbolic. But then, symbols are all we have to believe in. Soon we, the West, will find a new face of evil. Maybe Gaddafi. Maybe, although it’s too easy, Trump.