Osama bin Laden's death will prove us all right

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 2 May 2011 in Diary
Conspiracy theories, religion, and the search for meaning and order - Sadie Smith provides some context for the media outpouring

A work colleague and I have a game we play at times of momentous national or international events called “Guess the Coverage”. The rules are very simple: you take the headline event of the day, choose a publication, and jot down your predictions as to what approach the editorial and the paper’s commentators will take. Points are allocated on the basis of how accurate your forecast is when it is cross-checked with the real thing. My colleague is the undoubted master of the New Statesman, except when John Pilger bowls a googly of unusual madness at the wickets of sanity; I fare best at the Guardian and the Mail.

Okay, so it’s not very interesting, but at least it keeps us off the booze.

The news that Osama Bin Laden has been killed by US forces in Pakistan will inevitably bring out the usual in respect of their commentaries: some will engage in cultural relativism and argue that America and Israel are the real criminals, others will use the words “Blair” and “war criminal” like it’s 2003 all over again, and the Question Time audience will get down with their pound-shop intellectual stylings and clap uproariously when someone announces, apropos of nothing relevant, that “it’s all about oil”.

Some will declare Bin Laden not really dead, and some maintain that he never really lived but was an invention of the CIA to justify war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Others will warn darkly that this will make the world a more unsafe place and his death will mean that our leaders will have the blood of his organisation’s future victims on their hands.

In short, who cares what the story about Osama really is? It’s how it fits into our own that’s more important.

In “Three Uses of the Knife”, David Mamet explains the importance of drama to the human condition, and how we are all programmed to see ourselves as the heroes in our own story rather than one of many insignificant actors on the stage of life. Nearly ten years since Bin Laden became a household name, this tendency has increased, thanks in part to the internet, which provides a conspiracy to suit every prejudice, from “birthers” to the more traditional antisemitic archetype of the all-controlling Jew. Each conspiracy tells its believers the same, regardless of what nutbaggery it’s peddling: it is you, above all others, who have been chosen above the unthinking to see the truth.

God may well be dead, as Nietzsche once claimed, but we still seem to need his church’s structures, for within those we were heroes who sought illumination against the forces of darkness and absolute evil. Nowadays, for some those forces are represented by militant Islam, for others it is Israel, and for one-time goalie and latter day son of God David Icke, it’s the Lizard Men. It doesn’t really matter what the theory is, the point is that they exist to fill the gap in what has been left when the divine departed our lives: it gives us another narrative, it give us something to believe in, sets us as the good guys against “them”, the bad guys.

You can see a microcosm of this in contemporary political debate. The two sides of the Alternative Vote team have been roaring about how the other side is telling “lies” against them for the duration of the campaign. Before the new absolutism, this used to be called “a difference of opinion”, but not any more. You’re either on the side of the angels, or you’re a dirty liar.

So as to the editorials on Osama Bin Laden? Everyone will claim that his death proves what they’ve been arguing all along is the case, and what they predicted for the future is now a certainty. It will simultaneously be the fault of Western imperialism, Tony Blair, Pakistan, and Hamas. Contortions will be made, and hoops jumped through in order to prove – so don’t worry folks – the world is always as we understood it to be, and the rest is just ignorant evil.

So much for reason, rationality, and considered discourse in a secular 21st century.

Tags: David Mamet, Nietzsche, Osama bin Laden

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