The one where I write something about Osama bin Laden

So, Osama bin Laden is finally dead. I actually thought he’d been dead for about ten years, but I obviously haven’t been paying close enough attention. I have the same thing with Denis Norden; I’m never quite sure if he’s still with us or not. (He is, by the way. Alive. I’ve just checked his Wikipedia page.)

I was still awake just before 5am (BST) last Monday morning when news of Osama’s death was first breaking. Those celebrating Americans sure made our Royal Wedding street parties look mighty dull, didn’t they?

With no complex network of bunting and no rickety trestle tables snaking through the streets, buckling under the weight of scotch egg pyramids and platters of stale ham sandwiches, the American celebrations could easily have been a bit of a yawn fest. But they were nothing of the sort! Because even before Fox News could once again confuse the name of the world’s most notorious terrorist with their own president, thousands of ordinary Americans had gathered outside the White House, and at Ground Zero in New York, to celebrate Osama’s demise, bringing with them broad smiles, dancing shoes, and hearty lungs capable of at least sixty whoops per minute.

The crowds that gathered on Pennsylvania Avenue quickly surrounded themselves with a cacophonous wall of patriotism, with renditions of The Star-Spangled Banner and Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA, and also Queen’s We Will Rock You, which was perhaps a less obvious choice (unless everyone was singing “you’ve got blood on your face, you big disgrace” while gleefully envisioning the moment Osama bin Laden was shot in the face).

As car drivers slowed to a crawl and beeped their car horns in support, revellers climbed lampposts and trees, held aloft home-made placards, waved the Stars and Stripes enthusiastically (or wore it like a superhero’s cape), and provided camera crews with wild-eyed, exhilarated whooping, as if trapped in the memory of their greatest ever rollercoaster ride.

Typically one of those camera crews belonged to Fox News, which cut live to a grinning Geraldo Rivera, who was deeply embedded in a crowd of excitable college students. “It’s wild out here!” said Geraldo (who looked like Lionel Blair playing the role of a waxed-moustached Victorian ringmaster), “It’s Mardi Gras, it’s New Year’s Eve!”. He then thrust his microphone at the students in the crowd to get some raw reaction to Osama’s death, which led to several minutes of television that should see al-Qaeda’s human resources department inundated with applications.

“It’s awesome! Finally, the guy’s dead!” shouted one girl, instantly gaining deafening approval from her whooping peers. Geraldo then reiterated what a “party atmosphere” it was outside the White House, before describing the raucous scenes of patriotism as “soothing” and “reaffirming”. The only person who said anything vaguely sensible was the girl who described the occasion as “surreal”. It was certainly more sensible than Geraldo’s laughable claim that the wild celebrations over Osama’s death was America’s “Cairo moment”.

The death or capture of Osama bin Laden was always going to be the breaking news most likely send Americans into frenzied rapture, but the scenes outside the White House felt terribly unsettling. It was like watching a Facebook photo album of a testosterone-fuelled keg party come alive and scream “BOOYAH!” in the world’s face.

The American press was no less understated in its response to the news. Perhaps most ridiculous was the front page of the Chicago Southtown Star, which declared: “Bin Laden Dead – We Win At Last”. That the last ten murderous years of the ‘War on Terror’ (on both sides) could be summed up with a headline that sounded like America had just scored a match-winning point in a crucial sports game, was as naïve as it was supremely dumb. Especially when the prize for “winning” was a heightened terror alert at U.S. military bases and power plants, and a State Department travel alert for Americans worldwide.

Similarly, on the same day that the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, and president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, released a statement that the death of Osama bin Laden “makes the world a safer place”, there was a big, cuddly worldwide security alert.

But even with all the ecstatic celebrations that took place, it still felt like something was missing in the immediate aftermath of Osama’s death. I mean, did we really make as much of it as we could have done?

For instance, when the [blatantly obvious] Photoshopped image of Osama’s bloodied and mangled face appeared on TV screens in Pakistan (and later on the websites of several major British newspapers) wouldn’t it have been more impactful (i.e. great!) for it to have been available in 3D? If those people rejoicing at news of his death had been given the opportunity to look at his face through a pair of 3D glasses, they would’ve been able to reach out and almost feel as if they were mockingly ruffling his blood-matted beard. U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!

Or perhaps news of Osama’s death could’ve been broken with the aid of a Taiwanese news CGI reconstruction of the Navy SEALs’ assault on his compound. News stations could even have thrown in a ‘bullet time’ animation sequence showing the round from an M4A1 Carbine entering his left eye and then exiting out the top of his head, popping like a champagne cork in a technicolour shower of brain matter and skull fragments. Imagine the giggles! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!

But back in the real world, where people genuinely were wondering when the ‘money shot’ of the expired terrorist mastermind was going to be released, it soon became clear that there would be no publication of any such photograph. After deciding against releasing Osama’s death photo, President Barack Obama told CBS News: “It is important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence.”

Thankfully, though, Reuters decided to release extremely graphic photos of three of Osama’s dead associates (not sanctioned by the White House) who were shown lying in vast pools of congealed blood, with vacant stares and their brains blown out. So at least we sort of got to see what ‘justice’ looks like. U-S-A! U-S…oh, you get the idea.

But all of this aside, there was surely only one thing on our minds after Osama’s killing: what did the stars think about the news?

Well, Barack Obama’s homeland security and counterterrorism advisor Paris Hilton said: “So happy to hear the news of Osama bin Laden’s death. He was the face of terrorism and such an evil man. The world is a much better place with him not in it.”

Lindsay Lohan simply tweeted: “Go USA!” (although, she’d probably just skipped bail, puked in her own shoes and stolen a car at that point, so her excitable contribution might just have been high spirits).

Mel B reminded us all that we should spare a thought for the brave soldiers who risked their lives (*solemn applause*). While Kate Thornton rued the fact that Bin Laden had been killed, as she would’ve preferred to see him pay for his crimes. (Don’t worry, I’m sure the Loose Women managed to find their way back to more important matters, like discussing Kate Middleton’s menstrual cycle or rating viewers’ photos of their vajazzled pets.)

Meanwhile, Jedward pondered on Twitter: “Are Golden Grahams really gold? Could we buy new trainers and pay for them with cereal?”

(Only one of the above was made up.)

It’s taken me a whole week to write about this because the story of Osama bin Laden’s killing has been anything but straight forward, with claims, counter-claims and falsehoods from the very beginning.

Osama was originally painted as a crazed terrorist in a cowardly last-stand, firing an automatic weapon at the Navy SEAL assault team from behind his wife (his “weeping wife” according to the Daily Mirror, which sounded more emotive), who subsequently died in the assault. “A coward to the end,” spat the front page of the Daily Express.

Next day, of course, it transpired that Osama had actually been unarmed at the time of the raid and that his wife had been shot in the calf (injured but not killed) when she apparently rushed towards the assault team. A White House spokesman claimed that Osama had been killed after he “resisted”.

Following the revelation that he’d been unarmed at the time of the raid, the Daily Mirror then reported that Osama had been killed because the Navy SEALs feared that he may have been wearing a bomb vest. The assault team had apparently been briefed to “take him out” if he was dressed, so Osama’s decision to retire to bed wearing his “trusty getaway kit” (traditional robes with 500 euros and two emergency phone numbers sewn into them) was a fatal mistake.

[Being the world’s most wanted terrorist must have been a remarkably tedious experience. Every night, the same thing: take rubbish out (then burn); work on new aspirational terrorist plots; sew more items into clothing (travel pillow into hem of robe; packs of Fox’s Glacier Mints into sleeves; Kindle into underpants); turn electric blanket off and bomb vest on; fall into light sleep.]

After the raid, Osama’s dead body was bundled into a helicopter and extracted from the scene, before being swiftly identified using “multiple methods” and then lowered into the North Arabian sea in a weighted body bag from the deck of the USS Carl Vinson (a burial that was widely criticised by Muslim scholars as a violation of Islamic tradition). Case closed!

But aside from the confusing details of Osama bin Laden’s death (the White House later blamed the “fog of war” for their ever changing story), there were even questions about whether the photo of President Obama and his key aides – huddled in the situation room, supposedly watching real-time feed of the assault on Osama’s compound – was everything it seemed to be.

Director of the CIA, Leon Panetta, later admitted in an interview that there was a period of 20-25 minutes when the live feed from the Navy SEALs’ helmet-mounted cameras was cut off, which meant no one – not even Barack Obama himself – had the slightest idea what was happening on the ground in Abbottabad. For a raid that lasted only 40 minutes, it was quite a significant time gap. In fact, according to Panetta, Obama’s team really only managed to watch the helicopter ride in. The operation itself went unseen. The Special Ops team could’ve met resistance from an army of emotionless Cybermen and no one would have known anything about it

Oscar-winning director of The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow, who was already working on a film about a failed attempt to kill Osama bin Laden, is now re-writing the script to take into account the success of the Navy SEALs’ mission in Pakistan. The provisional title for the film is Kill bin Laden (or Terrorist Brain Explosion! U-S-A! U-S-A!) and is likely to go into production this summer. Given that no officials seem to know what the fuck happened during the raid on Osama’s compound, it will now be left to Hollywood to fill in the gaps and create something that history students of the future will assume is a documentary.

Just as I was planning to wrap up this lengthy blog post, yet more news emerged about Osama bin Laden. Last night, the Pentagon released five snippets of “home videos” which were apparently discovered at Bin Laden’s compound by the Navy SEALs team that killed him. The clips show muted footage of previously unseen video messages, including what some have described as a “blooper reel” which appears to show the al-Qaeda leader missing a cue during one recording.

But perhaps the most bizarre footage shows Osama wrapped in a blanket, sitting on the floor of a cluttered room, watching seemingly endless footage of himself on a 14″ television. It’s how I imagine Jeremy Spake spends his days, rocking back and forth watching repeats of Airport.

Analysis and discussion of these videos in the press and news media has concentrated heavily on the fact that they appear to show a man obsessed with his image, and with his portrayal by the world’s media. “He wears a gold robe in one – and uses dye to disguise his greying beard on camera in a vain bid to protect his public image,” said The Sun. While one American news anchor – with a delivery so deeply serious as to be vaguely comical – reported: “Sources say Bin Laden saw himself as the CEO of terror and mass murder.”

[If that was the last job on your CV, your next job would simply have to be with another terrorist organisation. Nothing else really fits. “It says on your application that your last job was ‘CEO of terror and mass murder’. What makes you want to pursue a career in telesales?”]

I find it slightly baffling that a man so obsessed with his image would sanction the filming of a video that showed him looking, not so much like an all-powerful terrorist mastermind, with a global network of jihadis under his direct command, but like someone who’d wandered into a soup kitchen. Yet that will undoubtedly be the enduring image of his reign of terror.

Reducing terrorist leaders to a human level – portraying them as isolated figures or bumbling, incompetent fools – is fairly standard stuff after their deaths. When America killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006 (another al-Qaeda bogeyman), the U.S. military released a seized video which showed him fumbling with a machine gun in the desert. That the most notorious terrorist in Iraq appeared to lack any real fighting skill immediately extinguished the legend of the fearsome terrorist that the Bush administration and mainstream western media had worked tirelessly to construct in our minds. Osama is no different.

But anyway, what the hell do I know? If you want really in-depth analysis of this stuff, I suggest you talk to Paris Hilton.



Filed under Comment, Current Affairs, Politics, terrorism

6 responses to “The one where I write something about Osama bin Laden

  1. See, I told you I’d read it and I did. I had to finish vajazzling my gerbils first. That’s not a euphemism btw.

    Personally, I found it quite sickening to see the level of celebration of someone dying. As someone who’s lost a parent, I can’t begin to imagine how it’d feel to see people celebrating and partying in the streets that they’d died. Not one of these people has given any thought for his family who – yes, they may have hidden him (as anyone else would prob do with a criminal parent on the run, it’s an unconditional love, afterall) – but they’re largely innocent. They do not deserve to see/hear/know about these festivations.

    Personally, I’d’ve felt a much quieter “ok, it’s over, let’s remember the innocent dead (on both sides) and move on with our lives” attitude would’ve been my approach, but then, that’s the difference between the British way and the American way, isn’t it? We go for strong and silent, they tend to be more vocal. Dunno why, it’s just how it is.

    • andytoots

      Hi Rich,

      I’ve just read quite an interesting article about the American celebrations after Osama’s killing, which were largely led by college kids.

      It explains that those college kids would’ve been about 10-years-old when 9/11 happened, so they’ve done all their growing up since then while constantly at war and living in fear of terrorism. Fair point, I suppose. But having said that, it’s still no excuse for such ridiculously exuberant celebrations.

      [Although, the news crews wandering through the crowds (e.g. Fox News’s Geraldo Rivera) didn’t exactly work to quash the party atmosphere.]

      The most notable quote from the above article came from 20-year-old USC sophomore Marcus Lau, who said: “I still don’t know exactly who [Osama bin Laden] is and what he has done. All I know is that he was the head of al-Qaida. His death provided some closure for the victims of 9-11, but I think it’s more of a symbolic death or symbolic victory.”

      If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the last ten years, it’s never to let the fuzzy details surrounding a terrorist’s alleged atrocities and ultimate death get in the way of a good party!

  2. This is superb. Love the Loose Women reference.

    Another fantastic piece of writing!

    • andytoots

      Hi Laura,

      Thank you so much! From this point on, you are the new Commenter-in-Chief for this blog.

      Please feel free to add your new title to any signatures and letterheads from this point on.

  3. Rich

    Bloody hell. Denis Norden’s still alive?

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