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Assassins of Memory: The problem with targeting Bin Laden

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Wednesday, 16 November 2011


A Democratic president stooped to it. His entire administration, with its vapid policy wonks participated with a gormless, idiotic enthusiasm. It was riddled with more omissions than a Japanese textbook on the rape of Nanking. But here was a documentary (can we even call it that?) by the History Network called Targeting Bin Laden, which must rank as one of the more shameless works of propaganda in recent years. 

Despite these glaring defects, it has been given the seal of approval by all too many. The ABC network in Australia advertised it as ‘the most complete picture of this top-secret mission currently available.’ A review in the Daily Beast (Sep 4) found it celebratory of ‘the greatest coup in the war on terror’, situated ‘solidly in the past’. Naturally, this complete picture has no Pakistani operatives, let alone former members of the ISI – they, after all, were not going to be cooperative. The documentary is kind enough to inform us of a term going about in various security circles: ‘frenemy’. With such formidable taxonomy in place, the U.S can engage in an act of war against an ally, ostensibly deceiving it and killing its residents with impunity.

One can only conclude that the American security establishment cannot deal with bin Laden with any measure of sense. Since the late 1990s, the United States has expended resources on an extra-judicial killing that would have fed, clothed and employed the people of several developing countries for a year. Through the entire production, there is a desperate need to justify the billions expended, the astonishing lack of human intelligence (of both types), the sneering reference to the ‘primitive’ technological means adopted by the al Qaeda operatives. Lives lost in the attacks of 11 September 2001 are ringed with holy splendour and mournful reminder. The thousands of other lives that were expended are the grand absentees of this tale.

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The scenes as they unfold are almost too grotesque to believe. To do justice to American business, pizzas are placed in a car to be taken to the situation room in the White House. (No à la carte or chef’s special, Mr President?) This was Disneyland justice in operation, with Disneyland terms – the mission to kill bin Laden was aptly termed ‘Geronimo’, since American military pride is often associated with killing or capturing Native American Indians, both historically and metaphorically.  The tradition continues. And, as if providing a nod of approval to Walt’s spirit, it was entirely filmed – death by celluloid. Supersized coke, anyone? Pass the peanuts, Hillary. Mind you, admission to this cinema must be discreet. Don’t all arrive all at the same time – the assortment of heavy cars and tinted windows might ‘alert’ those vultures otherwise known as the press corps.

The characters interviewed are the sorts one would find drooling before arcade games and scrounging for that last morsel of popcorn. Team Six of the Navy SEAL’s are spoken off with orgiastic enthusiasm. Helicopters manned by ‘night stalkers’ are so adept they can caress the canopies of trees as they brush past. Presumably these accommodating trees are on the rather high side.

A few things are hard to conceal, even by the abysmally low standards at work here. This was a killing mission and one with a rather impoverished quality of mercy. People are despatched with ruthless indifference, including the ‘target’. The circular argument of a former SEAL, State Senator for Montana Ryan Zinke, is laid bare: We are trained to kill. We are trained to react. We are trained to know the difference between what is threatening or what is not. But as that difference could be fatal, it is often ignored. Ergo, if you see anything on two legs, shoot it. And just to be sure, shoot what’s next to it. But even as the killing spree is taking place, the narrative fumbles. The lady slain in front of bin Laden is merely ‘shot in the leg’.

Then, there is the larger question of how these forces were actually permitted to operate in Pakistani airspace and attack a fortified compound in Abbottabad, a city which houses what is acknowledged as Pakistan’s equivalent of West Point. Those interviewed admit that the Pakistani radar system is far from primitive. The Disneyland excuse is that this was due to the supreme abilities of the special forces and the astonishingly daft nature of their opponents. But even as bombs were going off and shots fired in a space less than 1000 feet from the military base, one can’t help but feel that the local authorities were simply looking the other way. ‘Frenemies’, after all, do that sort of thing. But all is well in a world of thin memories. They got Geronimo in the end.

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Article edited by Jo Coghlan.
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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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