A raid to kill the planet’s most wanted man in a compound in a little-known Pakistan town — accidentally tweeted by a local who now finds himself the centre of unwanted global media attention — was always going to throw up stories, myths, conspiracies — from all sides. Not for nothing was bin Laden’s corpse buried at sea, thereby splitting his true believers into those who accepted his death, elevated him to martyr status and — undoubtedly — swore revenge, and those who refused to believe, who think bin Laden is in a CIA black site somewhere, off the grid, never to be seen again except by an extensive array of interrogators, or better yet still at large, ready to release yet another video to taunt the crusader devils.

The lack of detail readily furnishes plenty of material for propaganda as well. In less than 24 hours, some convenient stories have already emerged, with little or no foundation.

1. That Obama used his wife as a human shield.

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Nice story — the cowardly mass murderer using a woman to save himself. I was immediately struck by the familiarity of this claim. Where had I seen it before? Then I remembered — it bears a strange resemblance to the game Call of Duty: Black Ops in which Fidel Castro — or someone we think is Fidel Castro — uses his mistress as a human shield. Osama cravenly using a loved one to protect himself was how it was reported by many outlets, including our own ABC, Fairfax and News.

Sadly, it’s not at all clear it’s right. Website Politico has the actual statement from White House counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan:

“She served as a shield. Again, this is my understanding — and we’re still getting the reports of exactly what happened at particular moments — that when — she fought back; when there was the opportunity to get to bin Laden, she was positioned in a way that indicated that she was being used as a shield — whether or not bin Laden or the son, or whatever, put her there, or she put herself there, but, yes, that’s again, my understanding that she met her demise, and my understanding is that she was one of bin Laden’s wives.”

So, possibly a human shield, possibly a willing one, possibly just got in the way. Now dead. We’ll never know.

Still, undoubtedly the human shield story will live on, far more difficult to kill than even bin Laden himself proved to be.

2. That intelligence from Guantanamo Bay inmates helped locate bin Laden.

Another nice story in the context of the outrageous revelations about the many entirely innocent men wasting years of their lives in Gitmo, from WikiLeaks last week. What better way to delegitimise such criticisms than to claim Gitmo intel helped nail bin Laden himself?. Reports are circulating that such intelligence identified the nickname of a trusted courier of bin Laden’s, or if not from Guantanamo Bay, then from inmates held at other CIA black sites. Only problem is, of course, bin Laden was indeed “hiding in plain sight” in a Pakistani town not far from Islamabad, doubtless sheltered by elements within the Pakistan government or its security/military forces, and managed to do so for nearly a decade. Pity the poor Afghans held for years for no reason because the Americans couldn’t convince the ISI to give up bin Laden.

3. That the operation was aimed at capturing bin Laden.

There’s plenty of ambiguity around this. The initial impression was that bin Laden resisted capture and was shot dead in a firefight. But other Administration sources began saying the missions was to kill, not to capture, him, and that he was administered a coup de grace after the first shot to confirm he was dead, not merely injured.

The intent of the mission is important. A mission to capture bin Laden, during which he died, is far more defensible than a hit squad undertaking an extra-judicial killing. We’ve grown used to extra-judicial killings in the past decade, whether of prize al-Qaeda operatives or of innocent Brazilians going to work on the London Tube. But the ready connection made by President Obama, Prime Minister Gillard, John Howard and others that the death of bin Laden is in any way “justice” is nonsensical. It is justice cheated. We have been deprived of the opportunity to see this man put on trial and confronted by those who have suffered as a consequence of al-Qaeda actions — including, one would have hoped, many Muslims, given al-Qaeda was far more expert at slaughtering its co-religionists than Americans. His death removes the possibility of the other valid form of justice human have managed to establish, in independent courts.

The reportage of the operation itself now reads more like the review of a video game than anything to do with actual human beings (the reference above to Call of Duty was not accidental). In particular, the alleged “insider” account of the mission at National Journal seems designed as a movie script, with bin Laden “done in with a double tap” and Boys’ Own fetishisation of the Joint Special Operations Command that conducted the operation. Bin Laden is now just the final Boss battle at the end of a 10-year FPS game.

Regardless of their veracity, all these claims will became the established facts of the death of bin Laden. “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” John Ford had journalists say in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Ford was obsessed with the great themes of the American west, around the clash of cultures and the coming of civilisation to close the west, to impose law, order and the softening touch of family. Ford’s quote, endlessly recycled decades later, is as apt as ever. This is indeed the West, but civilisation is already here. And it’s still obsessed with playing cowboys and Indians.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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