It started with television images that resembled a macabre outtake from a Hollywood blockbuster and it seems to have ended like one too. Ten years ago it was the planes hitting the towers, like a trailer from an upcoming Die Hard film, and last week it was the crowds celebrating outside the White House mirroring the arrival of Dorothy in Oz.
Whirled out of the heart of America, Dorothy dropped out of the sky into Foreigners-ville, crushing an incarnation of evil under solid American timbers in a weird pre-figuration of last week’s raid in Pakistan, where our American heroes were themselves whirled into the sky (though Stealth-ily) and dropped into the land of the freaky towelheads, right onto the head of the biggest baddie of them all. Cue singing, dancing and general merriment.
The decade since the September 11 attacks has had plenty of Hollywood moments both manufactured (Bush’s ‘Mission Accomplished’ posturing, the pulling down of the statue of Saddam in Baghdad) and actual. The images from the decade’s cinema blockbusters showed repeatedly how deeply the catastrophe of September 11 has penetrated American life. In Cloverfield, a monster we can never quite grasp the dimensions or intentions of rampages through Manhattan. In Spiderman 1, in a metaphor so brazen it has to be unintentional, a green goblin jets around New York smashing buildings to pieces, his head filled with babbling religious voices.
Meanwhile Osama bin Laden became the poster boy for Evil. He was in many ways the villain the times demanded. The regimes of John Howard and George W Bush had one curious thing in common. Like bin Laden, Bush and Howard were not especially distinctive looking men. Bush with his somewhat dim crafty-anxious look was like someone’s neglected farm labourer, with a still full of moonshine and a hankering for cowgirls. Howard seemed like a suburban school principal, one who dreamed of higher things, brushing his eyebrows every morning into Menzian curlicues to remind himself of what could have been. Both men were a bit intractable, single-minded, unimaginative, not too literate, inclined to random punishments, who wouldn’t stand out wandering around the local fete.
However Howard and Bush’s closest advisers, ministers and minions told a different story, as though they couldn’t help but make visible what they would prefer to keep hidden. Consider Howard’s gang: Peter Costello, the waxwork with the vacant grin, and those dead eyes that nothing but the bloodied, dismembered corpse of Howard would ever animate; the sinister Phillip Ruddock padlocking detention camps while at work, and impaling butterflies on his days off and with a singular resemblance to Montgomery Burns; the two Bishops, the terrifying Julie whose gaze showed only too clearly that she considered other as prey and the ferocious Bronwyn who reminded one of nothing so much as a particularly greedy harpy circling beneath dark clouds, shrieking whatever everyone else was shrieking, and licking her lips; Tony Abbott whose weird mediaeval pronouncements on virginity make one very concerned about what he dreamed of in the depths of his sleep; and the strange Alexander Downer, the School Prefect dreaming continually of power, of an omnipotent ability to crush others as he pleased and of black fishnet stockings.
But even this misshapen crew couldn’t compete with Bush’s Faustian collection of weirdos: Condoleeza Rice, who one felt would nod and smile tight-lipped in exactly the same way, whether being informed that her macchiato was ready or that a cellarful of partially-eaten babies had been discovered underneath the Oval Office; Donald Rumsfeld, like Death in an Armani suit, his eyes black holes sowing destruction, plague and sorrow with his every breath and with a grin like a mummified skeleton; Paul Wolfowitz whose surname one imagined probably accurately reflected what happened to him on the full moon, a nature that he barely kept in check in public; and scariest of all Dick Cheney, whose bespectacled eyes, revolving manically made one think of bodies carved up in bathtubs, backyard surgery, and a private slavering over unimaginable quantities of cash.
Being the world’s super-villain looked like a pretty crap life all told. In the end bin Laden spent his final five or six years walled up in what was initially referred to in the world’s media as a ‘mansion’, then as a ‘compound’, both terms conjuring up images of resplendent Goldfinger-style power. Judging from the few photos I’ve seen, Chez bin Laden looked more like a prison. It seems obvious that bin Laden had at least initially been protected by Pakistan military intelligence. Robert Fisk who met and interviewed bin Laden several times reckons that it was probably the Pakistanis who betrayed him. Given the level of protection around bin Laden’s mansion-compound (the US assassination team were fired on just once), one can easily build up a picture of an isolated and sick man, his support leaching away, perhaps increasingly irrelevant to the changes happening in the Arab world. The Arabic masses did indeed rise up as bin Laden hoped, but not in the name of the Caliphate of Osama.
The late Tony Judt, in his final book Ill Fares the Land, a book he says he wrote for children, pointed out that the September 11 attacks were the work of criminals, and as such the appropriate response would have been identification of said criminals, their apprehension, and their subsequent trial in a court of law. What we got was the contemptuous dismissal of judicial authority and ethics, the trashing of hitherto inalienable civil rights of the population of the nation in which the attacks had occurred, and in others where they hadn’t, and the unleashing of a catastrophic war machine that has obliterated nations, ratcheted up the risk of terrorist attacks, slaughtered thousands and thousands of completely innocent people, imprisoned and tortured others at random, and made a few people very rich.
Amid the general hilarity and rejoicing at bin Laden’s death the debates have begun to take on a kind of unhinged, hallucinatory quality. Julia Gillard, who lately seems to becoming creepier and creepier and was last seen threatening children who had had babies, had another of her get-this-woman-to-therapy moments when she said she ‘welcomed’ bin Laden’s death. It was almost as though she were smacking her lips. Obama’s solemn comment that bin Laden ‘will no longer walk this earth’ rang with Biblical overtones as if we were standing, now saved, in the landscape of the Book of Revelation. Any measured and balanced critique came from the usual suspects, the Robertsons, the Ellises, the Sparrows, the Fisks and so forth, with an avalanche of more unfortunate arguments emanating from individuals who one would have thought would know better but appear to have lost their minds, and others who were almost too cringeworthy and disturbing to read.
And in that photo of Obama and his crew in the Situation Room, the photo with Hillary Clinton with her hand to her mouth, what on earth were they actually watching – bin Laden getting his head blown off?
Anyway, at least you know that if the US deems you a criminal mastermind – not as rare an occurrence these days as one would think – or even if you are a criminal mastermind, you can look forward to SEALS coming through your windows regardless of which nation you live in, blowing holes in you with low-velocity bullets in front of your children and disposing of your body as they see fit.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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