Late at night, on the outskirts of a big city, they slipped in and got him. It was illegal, a breach of sovereignty, and the host country would later scream blue murder. But it was so compromised by its associations that little attention was paid. When news of the raid got out, and the result was seen for what it was, any cavils about international law were put to one side as the world rejoiced.
The operation of which I speak is, of course, the kidnap of Adolf Eichmann from Argentina by an Israeli squad in 1961 — an event whose initial audacity was quickly consumed by an even more extraordinary act, that of putting Eichmann on trial in Israel, complete with a defence counsel, and a process that many criticised at the time as achingly slow, overly deferential to a man whose identity and guilt was unquestionable, and whose accordance of the notion of possible innocence was a traumatic affront to survivors.
The trial was certainly no favour to Eichmann himself, who must have wished many times in that interminable process, that he had been, in the current ling, “taken out” with a “double tap”. Nor was it a favour to his reputation or to that of Nazism — for he was revealed to embody the unconscious of Nazism, its wheedling narcissism and self-pity, its overwhelming focus on wounds — wounded pride, wounded wholeness.
Though it now seems that Hannah Arendt overstated the degree to which Eichmann was simply an amoral functionary without personal anti-Semitism, it is true that he was neither a fervent philosophical Nazi such as Alfred Rosenberg, nor deranged like Hitler, nor an insouciant gangster such as Goering, whose guards at Nuremburg found, to their horror, to be a man they could not help but like.
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So Israel did Eichmann no favours by granting him full legal right, allowing him ample time to contemplate his past acts and imminent future extinction. But nor did it do it for the purpose of making him contemplate his own death, for revenge. The meaning of Eichmann’s trial was neither justice nor revenge; it was not about Eichmann at all. It was a determination that the victor should not allow themselves to be defined by its relationship to the enemy in any way.
Eichmann’s trial may have looked like due process, but it wasn’t. Had it been so, Eichmann should have been handed over to the United Nations — for crimes against humanity — or East or West Germany, as a common criminal. Israel, founded in 1948, could not claim that its citizens had been wronged by Eichmann, because there weren’t any; the country’s role as global representative of the Jewish people was a non-legal claim, an act of political belief. Nor was it acceded to by diaspora Jews, in the way it was later.
So the question remains: on whose behalf was Eichmann being tried, and by whom? The answer is, by Israel as a representative of humanity. In doing so, the primary purpose of the trial was to recognise Eichmann as a human being, and not as a mere enemy. To thus raise him up, was to negate the meaning of the radically evil movement he so haphazardly represented, and to define one’s own movement, one’s political meaning and being as an expression of humanity and the universal, not as an exception to it.
Whether Israel, even in 1961, was living up to that in other aspects (its Arab indigenous population, like the Australian indigenous, did not have voting rights until 1967) is another question. No state does. But with Eichmann’s trial, it uncoupled itself from being defined by the one movement of modernity whose radical evil was grounded in defining itself against humanity.
The distance we have gone in dealing with the problem of Eichmann to the problem of bin Laden is a measure of the profound shift in the West in relation to everything — to the West’s idea of itself, to its confidence in its own project, to its sense of bodying forth an expression of the universal, of the human in its doings.
Those empires, movements, parties that have a belief in themselves as an expression of humanity, of the good — of a particular expression of a general aspiration — exercise it by trying to reach towards the universal in their doings. Those whose project, and/or their faith in it, has collapsed, themselves collapse back to the particular, to paranoia, persecution and resentment.
To win, to triumph, is to defeat an enemy, and the most important part of that victory is to no longer be defined by them. Essential to that victory, is the extension of respect to the vanquished. That may involve mercy, but does not need to. But look at any victor, and you will find some mechanism by which that respect and recognition could be established. The Mongols slaughtered their enemies — and then named their children after them. The Romans tortured rebels as public entertainment — and then extended the Pax Romana to their followers.
Conversely, any victor that cannot manage such a gesture is in deep trouble, because they cannot free themselves from a fight they have already won. And if victory itself cannot free them, what will? Those forces caught in such a loop cannot get out of it, because their own identity is more strongly defined by the way their enemy regards them, than it is by the way they regard themselves. The inability to grant either mercy, or legal formalism, or respect, or to simply move on is an expression of a fatal lack of confidence at the core of the project, a lack of political being.
That, more than anything, is why the killing of Osama bin Laden, and the outpouring of emotion that followed it, is so strange and revealing. For it is the conduct of an empire that cannot believe in itself to such a degree, that any attempt to deal with its enemies from a position of self-respect cannot be countenanced. For the Obama administration it would be too risky, politically — any residual desire they might have to prosecute their case according to international law cannot be acted on given the demands of the US public, and the commentariat that feeds it.
Nor can whole sections of the US public see any way to mark the death of bin Laden, save to continue reliving it in pseudo-triumphant discussion, empty imperial swagger. The same applies perforce to the right abroad, for whom the defeat and derangement of the US has been an experience of fundamental disarray. They can’t see a way to talk about the US from a position of strength, because really, they can feel none.
That bin Laden was executed now seems to be the obvious truth about the mission. As an individual act by an imperial state, it’s something I can’t see any reason to be, per se, outraged about, since to do so would be to somehow suggest that there’s a moral way to run a lethal drone-bombing war in a country whose sovereignty you’ve traduced for a decade.
Bin Laden’s residency in a Pakistani elite garrison town made a drone attack impossible, and in any case the US clearly wanted as much information as it could take in the operation; execution was what would otherwise have been done by drone. There is presumably a legal argument that, if you can grab someone alive you should; but it seems in this case that many are reacting more to the intimacy of the killing — which drones depersonalise nicely — than to the act itself.
The decision to kill bin Laden differed from the Eichmann case in one obvious respect — there was no neo-Nazi global movement to treat Eichmann as a martyr, and use his ongoing existence as a rallying point. Nevertheless that is clearly not the only reason bin Laden was killed. For while Israel’s capture of Eichmann had involved only one discreet act of lawlessness, the abduction itself, to take bin Laden alive would be to draw him into the whole vast web of American lawlessness and exception created over the past decade, and to undertake a nightmare process by which any simple conception of war, right, justice, on the part of the nation would fully unravel.
Like everything else associated with 9/11 and what followed — Ground Zero, Afghanistan, Iraq, the non-mosque at Ground Zero — it is America’s enemies whose acts are full of simplicity, assuredness and resolve, while the country itself is drawn down into chaos by the slightest act of intent. Well, was drawn down. For the principal fact about the bin Laden operation and execution was that it was the first well-planned and successfully undertaken operation that the US has performed in a decade. The part-withdrawal from Iraq was, well, just that, and the “surge” largely involved bribing Iraqi warlords to switch sides. Hardly guts and glory.
That simplicity is the source of the renewed swagger — the USA! chant may as well be translated as “for once, we acted with standard competence” — but it is also the source of relentless and compulsive recitative of it. For no sooner had America been reminded of bin Laden’s existence than he was gone from them. With no ongoing operation, or siege, no photos or witnesses — merely an announcement by the President and pix of a place looking like a scruffy Malibu beach house, slated for demolition. Bin Laden was killed in the President’s words, and nowhere else.
Even that minimal treatment of the matter began to come apart with the telling of it. White House counterterrorism chief John Brennan, staggering, bemedalled and grey crewcut, out of a Dr Strangelove remake, said that bin Laden had used his wife as a shield in his million-dollar mansion. The words seemed to speak themselves, as when, during the Iraq war a US commander accused Iraqi units who had got a rare jump on his own troops, of employing “terrorist tactics”.
Following Brennan’s announcement, the reaction to bin Laden’s death went into three phases: first, there were spontaneous gatherings and sports-style cheerleading about it, followed by growing reservations about the manner of the operation, which then produced renewed and redoubled exhortation of American glory, and increasing insistence that that glory was expressed in the compulsive desire to heap further ritual abuse on someone already dead.
The universal allegation for this sort of behaviour — which a lot of people found odd, without actually being repelled or disturbed by it — was “frat boy”, as in “fraternity”, the closed societies that American college students join. The mark of the frat boy is that it’s a licensed period not merely of irrational loyalty to an arbitrary group ranged against other arbitrary groups, but also of the surrender of individual selfhood to it. The “frat boy” has one last chance to be totally dissolved into the group before graduation and adulthood supervene. The appeal of it is that it’s not a loyalty to anything that matters: like supporting a football team, the pleasure comes from putting all your energy into hating someone you don’t really hate, the other team.
So it’s strange that the form of celebration of bin Laden’s death should resemble that sort of energy so exactly. Both the public celebrations and much of the subsequent comment had the pile-on quality of two-for-one night at a sports bar. The comments appeared to become more outlandish as the week went on, and the event disappeared from view.
The New York Post’s editorial for May 5 pretty much summed it up:
President Obama lays a wreath at Ground Zero today to mark the accelerated demise of the arch-terrorist Osama bin Laden. All Americans of good will — especially New Yorkers — will note the event with satisfaction.
So shout it loud: Osama’s dead and we’re proud!
… there is a larger message, too, worth shouting from the top of the rapidly rising towers at Ground Zero: Osama bin Laden, you thought you could destroy us. Well, you failed.
The Long War is far from over — but, not to tempt the fates, this victory is so very, very sweet.
Such an editorial would appear merely try-hard in most circumstances. Here it verges on the self-parodic. For it is obvious that bin Laden didn’t think that al-Qaeda, by itself, could destroy the US, which is why the piece sounds like a Seinfeld excerpt: “Newwwwwwmannnnnnn! Binnnnnnnn Ladennnnnnnnn!”). Since 9/11 was agreed to as a high-risk strategy that would draw America into wars from which it could not disentangle, but that might destroy al-Qaeda, you’d have to say he succeeded by failing. Victory, far from being sweet, has next to no content, which is why the manner of celebrating it resembles a sports occasion.
Sport is fun because, while all the emotion of conflict can be recreated, there is no real enemy – if by enemy we mean a potentially annihilating other. But a culture that cannot face its enemy – even in capture – and can only celebrate victory through the medium of unreal conflict, will tend to inflate adversaries to many times their normal size, like a geopolitical Macy’s Day Parade. The Israelis of 1961 could face Eichman, but they were part of an era when an enemy could be faced. The US could not stand to face Osama bin Laden in the flesh, answering questions, advancing his world view in open court.
But nor could it face him in image. One of the signal moments of the past decade was the manner in which Time magazine ducked bin Laden as “person of the year” in 2001. The magazine had chosen Hitler in 1938, Stalin in 1939, and Khomeini in 1979, living up to the idea of “whoever has made the most influence for good or ill” by their lights. Bin Laden was the obvious choice for 2001, and in deciding instead for Rudolph Giuliani — whose undoubted valour was purely in reaction to something bin Laden (or Mohammed Atta) had done — they acknowledged the changed nature of the American public, and exacerbated it.
There was insufficient resilience there to face one’s enemy, even on the news-stand. Bin Laden in the flesh would have caused an extended nervous breakdown, a taster of which was offered in The Drum by Melody Ayres-Griffiths, a formerly US-based Canadian with the self-parodic headline “Osama Bin Laden r-ped our souls”, and the equally mad bio tag ‘Melody Ayres-Griffiths still cries when she thinks of that day.‘
The full gaak of this piece is worth an excerpt:
“Even adults, who could only but break out in spontaneous tears on lonely, mournful nights in the weeks that followed were haunted by this man in a way that perhaps has no equal in Western history.
I acquired a mobile phone. For the sake of my family. Because of Osama bin Laden.
This man r-ped our souls, and when he did so he was no longer a man, but an enemy. THE enemy.”
Yes among Osama bin Laden’s many crimes, a roll-over monthly contract. What makes such a piece of writing, from someone directly unaffected by 9/11, so compelling is the desire to join to the event, not in solidarity, but in shared victimhood, which is its opposite. If you feel irrevocably, individually wounded, and if such a state has come to define you, then of course you can never move on. The only alternative to victimhood, its mirror really, is a fantasy triumphalism. Last time I looked both moods had spread through the conservative Australian press. The lingering over the death, the chiding of anyone who suggests that moral issues might get in the way of the exercise of will becomes a recapitulation at the political level of what has become a theme of American popular culture: the centrality of torture as an expression of life.
The torture obsession predates 9/11 and Iraq, but each fed into the other. From Tarantino’s first films in the ’90s, through to the Saw franchise, the s-x and violence of the ’70s films that had so disturbed conservatives was replaced with a grim obsession with what an active body could do to a passive one. S-x is intimacy combined with power, in such a way that power may eventually dissolve to genuine reciprocity. Torture is intimacy that can only occur through the exercise of power.
It was no coincidence that in the ’90s and through the 2000s, explicit s-ex moved out of the realm of mass popular culture and into a specialist delivery system — legitimised hard-core p-rn — while torture came to be the central mode of expression, a means of communication between people, a suggestion that there was only power, and that power was only measured in pain. Torture, the victim’s fantasy of revenge, is the ultimate subjugation of self to the other, to the enemy, because it means that the enemy determines even your dreams. It was thus inevitable that it would bleed back out into the real world, in the depredations of Abu Ghraib, and the centrality of Jack Bauer and “24” to the 2004 presidential debates. Even presidential candidates it seemed, would rather live in a fantasy chamber of horror and heroism, than face the real world.
The failure of self-belief in a Western project had spread throughout the West for several decades before 9/11 came along. But that event and the reaction to it, accelerated the process greatly, a sort of final recapitulation of it in a single decade. One response to this inability to project power and will — because there is no great consensus behind the meaning of such power, or its purpose — has been an outsourcing of it to Israel. And that, to a degree, is where the ends tie together. For after Eichmann was found guilty and sentenced to death, there was a powerful campaign in aid of him, to show clemency — a campaign in Israel. Twenty years earlier, the terrorist wing of Zionism had defended mass civilian terror as an expression of Mosaic law. Now, in 1961, many in the country sought to go beyond the legal principles of Nuremburg, to a conception of height that abjured any notion of justice that might have even a hint of retribution about it. Now instead of that, we have this, from Ted Lapkin, one of ultra-Zionism’s shrillest supporters:
“So there’s something quite condign about, not only the demise of the al-Qaeda leader, but about the manner in which he met it. His wasn’t a remote-control death by Hellfire missile fired from an unseen drone hovering in the heavens. Such a scenario would have provided the American people with a less than complete sense of satisfaction.
But as it turned out, there was real poetic justice to the way bin Laden was finally delivered into the clutches of the grim reaper. In the end, the death visited upon him by the United States was up close and personal. A team of Navy SEALs found him, fixed him and killed him in a face-to-face. In a flawlessly implemented special operations raid, the world’s best finally settled the score with the world’s worst.”
To write such a thing is to be a prisoner of your own obsessions, your own needs, and to take your movement down with you. It is the neo-con voice moving from Narcissus to echo, sounds unattached to any speaking. It has run on endlessly this week, from a thousand different directions, it cannot stop itself, cannot resolve itself, and the only one who could is at the bottom of the ocean, beyond the realm of torture, no longer able to answer the question as to why we have gone down there with him, scorning the aspiration to a higher calling, content to dwell in the kingdom of the underworld, the permanent exception, in the night outside the city walls.