Home > Current Affairs, Politics > Obama, Osama, and the Smashing of an Icon

Obama, Osama, and the Smashing of an Icon

Unless you live under a rock, you’ve surely heard that this happened. Between the cathartic jingoism in the streets, the thoughtful hand-wringing of media punditry, and an avalanche of snark on Twitter, it’s hard to formulate much of a thought or even a feeling on the government-mandated assassination of the Bogeyman of the 21st century that hasn’t already been manifested somewhere in the digital ether.

I suppose one way to look at this that may not have already been overstated is as a clash of symbols. Osama bin Laden, dangerous as he may have been as the actual leader and financier of a worldwide terrorist organization, was far more potent as an amorphous cipher for evil, and specifically for radical Islamic fundamentalist evil. Hence the various “heh”s at his untimely end being announced to the world on the same day, 66 years later, as Adolf Hitler, even if the horrors that bin Laden has unleashed are quantifiably dwarfed by the Fuhrer’s. Osama was the Emmanuel Goldstein of the 24-hour mass-saturation media meta-culture of our time, a sinister Other whose image stood for much more than the sum of his deeds, just as the made-for-TV vividness of the atrocity he stage-managed almost a decade ago inflated its effect (and affect) far beyond its actual costs. His visage justified at least two American wars, to say nothing of the numerous terrorist acts committed (and yet to be committed) by his ideological followers. This is odd when considering the structure of al-Qaeda; Ayman al-Zawahiri was always the idea man to Osama’s logisitics manager and treasurer, but the latter became the logo for mass cultural consumption. That logo, that icon, has now been smashed.

We contrast this with the symbols of America arrayed against him. Not just the flag or “freedom” or the evocation of the militaristic ingenuity and prowess of his assassins, but the President. I suppose it didn’t have to be Obama to get this done (and conservatives are already crediting Bush the Junior in absentia), but it was, and that’s interesting. The POTUS has been a curious hybrid of policy muscle, military authority, and untouchable quasi-kingliness since the position was created (blame George Washington for that), and the concept of Obama himself playing such an active, badass role in taking down the cartoon villain has symbolic truth in it even if it lacks strict accuracy.

Thus, it doesn’t surprise or particularly disturb me that Obama personalized the operation so much in his prepared remarks last night. As much as it makes political and electoral strategic sense for the sitting President of a firmly divided country to own this victory and use it to rally voters to him and his causes, it shows a keen understanding of the majestic, manipulative power of the Presidency to do so. Political allegiances aside, this is just what Americans most likely want their President to do: eliminate the bad guys with steely determination. Protect them like Daddy. Not to be a patronizing, puff-chested dick about it (this was Dubya’s repeated mistake), but to make them feel safe and then to reign.

There can now be no doubt that the supposedly deliberate and professorial Obama has this pose in his arsenal, and his prospective, dysfunctional freak-show challengers for the 2012 general election have now got to be even more intimidated by him than they already were. But, like so much else about the man, this is a pose. Like the putative Arabic nemesis he has vanquished, Obama stands for something greater than himself, and that something is vastly different depending on who’s considering him.

Unlike the mercurial, secretive bin Laden, eluding capture and even eyeballing for years, Obama is a master of control and iconography. Like all great politicians (because whatever else you say about him, there can be no doubt at this point that he is certainly that), Obama excels at getting anyone of even a slightly open mind to see their aspirations and expectations fulfilled in him. Even the ludicrous horror-movie tropes thrown at him by the looniest fringe of the right fit this paradigm. He is that most American of icons: the self-made man. The post-modern twist is that Obama is always self-making himself before our very eyes.

On quite another note, a major political meta-event goes down tonight: the Canadian federal election. If it ends up being as surprising and unpredictable as the polls are indicating it will be, there will be plenty to say about it, especially in the fluid days after the vote itself. Expect more pondering in this space as we move forward into a brave new public future.

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Categories: Current Affairs, Politics

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