"We nonviolently oppose the reliance on unilateral military actions rather than cooperative diplomacy."


May 5, 2011

Although we are dealing with current events when we discuss the death of bin Laden, we are also dealing in myth.

Traditionally, myths are fabulous narratives transmitted by custom and folklore that deploy beings who symbolically incarnate forces of nature and aspects of the human condition.

But in the society of the spectacle that the modern world has become, myths are the picturesque, authoritative expressions of ideas and doctrines mass media inculcate in the public mind as they report and interpret facts and events.

When President Barack Obama, before the eyes of more than 56 million Americans, strode down the red carpet late Sunday night to announce "that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda," his principal concern was not to convey information but rather to reinforce the myth of 9/11.

After a single sentence about the killing of bin Laden, the president devoted five paragraphs and 400 words to interpreting 9/11. "And so we went to war against al Qaeda to protect our citizens, our friends, and our allies."  More than 30% of the president's speech was about 9/11.  Only 11% was about the operation that killed bin Laden.

It is in this context that we should understand the government's use of secrecy to shroud events.  The justifications offered are many: preserving operational secrecy, minimizing hostility, maintaining basic human decency.  But just as there is unlikely ever to be an independent examination into the events of September 11, 2001, so we are unlikely ever to get an unexpurgated account of the events of May 1-2, 2011.  Factual truth is not what matters in the domain of myth.

Al Qaeda in particular is a fine example of a "floating signifier," a term used to describe concepts that contribute (in the words of Claude Lévi-Strauss) "an undetermined quantity of signification, in itself void of meaning and thus apt to receive any meaning."  The U.S. national security state and American mainstream media attribute to it leaders, members, fighters, operatives, affiliates, and so on, but since the beginning of the War on Terror they have shown little interest in accurately describing al Qaeda.

In his speech on Sunday night, President Obama said that after 9/11 "We quickly learned that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by al Qaeda—an organization headed by Osama bin Laden, which had openly declared war on the United States and was committed to killing innocents in our country and around the globe."

It's true that we quickly "learned" that, because that's what we were told.  But the evidence was always deferred.

"[I]n the end," Xavier Raufer, author of several dozen works on criminality and terrorism, has written, "is al Qaeda a 'clearinghouse,' an 'extremist Islamist group,' a 'global network,' an 'entity,' an 'organization,' a 'system,' a 'secret international brotherhood,' a 'powerful Islamic force'?  Is it 'more than an organization, also a process'; is it 'a dispersed and amorphous foe'?  Does it have 'cells,' 'operatives,' 'members,' a 'leadership'?  Does it 'function like a cult' or like an 'enterprise'?  No one seems to know for sure."

Many Americans, who are footing a bill that has reached $1.2 trillion and is still rising rapidly, would like to know.  But don't expect to get an answer any time soon.  What the president would like to see, as he said at the end of his Sunday night address, is "the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11."  For in 21st-century America, as in Orwell's 1984, "IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH."


"We nonviolently oppose the reliance on unilateral military actions rather than cooperative diplomacy."