Monday, May 2, 2011

Osama bin Laden: Beyond the Formulaic

My wife and I learned of the death of Osama bin Laden almost by accident.  We had just finished a slightly-delayed viewing of last night’s episode of Treme through our VTR;  and our cable box happened to be tuned to CBS.  So, as soon as we completed the VTR viewing, we realized we were watching a live feed from the White House;  and the reason for that feed become obvious almost immediately.  After that I flipped on my XM receiver and tuned it to the BBC World Service;  and, sure enough, they were right on top of things.

However, I was not prepared for what happened next.  Shortly before 9 PM (Pacific time), the BBC feed was interrupted by a message from Sirius announcing important breaking news.  My guess is that this was set up to interrupt all channels, even the ones already broadcasting that news.  Technology strikes again.

After that the BBC (and probably most other news feeds) shifted into all-Osama-all-the-time mode, even if there was not much more to be said.  Indeed, my wife remarked that even Barack Obama’s announcement was rather lengthy.  We both agreed that most of it had been composed long before the event.  For all I know, it had been prepared for the previous President and has been taken out for “periodic maintenance” since then.  None of this should devalue the significance of the event, but there has been something disconcertingly formulaic in the media treatment it has been receiving.

As usual, the best way to break from the formula has been to go over to Al Jazeera English.  There I found an analysis piece by Marwan Bishara with the provocative title “Killing the alibi.”  The fundamental message in this article can be distilled down to one sentence from the text:

But for the Muslim world, bin Laden has already been made irrelevant by the Arab Spring that underlined the meaning of peoples power through peaceful means.

This is consistent with Nicolas Pelham’s analysis of conditions in Libya in the current issue of The New York Review, even bearing in mind that the article was written on April 14, which almost feels like ancient history with the current rate of progress of events.  Pelham writes about the “volte-face of Libya’s jihadis,” referring to a shift of allegiance from al-Qaeda to support for the United States.  His point was that the rebellion was a youth movement whose real enemy was Muammar Qaddafi.  Following the wisdom of Malcolm X, they sought to oppose Qaddafi “by any means necessary;”  and, in the global context of that “Arab Spring,” the means provided by the United States seemed more promising than those of al-Qaeda, particularly for the secular beliefs of many of the rebels.  To support his position, Pelham quoted the following couplet being chanted by the Libyan rebels:

No to Qaeda.  No to Terror.
All Hail our Youth Guerrilla.

In the face of all this “no,” where is the “yes?”  To reflect on one of my posts from last week, the “yes” is for breaking the chains of slavery, whether it is slavery to a ruthless dictator or the slavery imposed on a global scale by the economic policies that benefit an obscene minority of the rich and mighty.  As Fareed Zakaria observed, the rebels are young, unemployed, and with little, if any, prospect of a future, desperate to say “yes” to simply having a viable future.  With its roots in Islamic Fundamentalism, al-Qaeda does not offer a path to that future;  and it is hard to imagine the new generation of rebels accepting bin Laden’s extremely prosperous roots.  So they turn to American military might to blaze a trail to their own liberation, but what will happen when they discover that the future to which they aspire is not consistent with that of the current ruling classes of a globalized economy?

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