After 9/11, former US president George W. Bush famously proclaimed that Osama bin Laden was a ‘wanted’ man who would eventually be brought to justice, ‘dead or alive’. In the western United States, especially in places like Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, Bush’s words resonated with the public in ways that transcended mere theatrical bravado. When Bush was first elected, it may be remembered, the lawn of the White House was transformed into a chuck wagon barbeque, replete with fiddling hillbillies, cowboys in ten-gallon hats, even rope-twirling rodeo girls who could put Dale Evans to shame. Along the ‘blue state’ coasts, the US public was mostly aghast at this gaudy display of cowboy haute couture at the very throne of the nation’s power. Some claimed the president was little more than a ‘fake’ cowboy who cynically manipulated ‘red state’ sentimentality. Those who knew him better understood that the erstwhile Texas Ranger was in his true element that night.
What is less well-known is that Barack Obama’s mother and grandparents also hailed from the Old West, in fact from the rustic town of Wichita, Kansas, not far from Dodge City, the legendary home of Old West hero Wyatt Earp. While the childhood of President Obama was marked by a rich variety of international experiences, he was also deeply influenced by the traditional culture and values of his mother and grandparents, obviously more so than that of his Kenyan father, whom he hardly knew. The high volume of racist chatter from figures like Donald Trump and the ‘birthers’ has tended to obscure the fact that Barack Obama has been every bit as ‘Western’ and ‘realistic’ in his foreign policy as George W. Bush, who failed to make good on his promise to gun down bin Laden.
In Oklahoma, where I grew up, and where Obama’s mother spent a good part of her childhood, there remains great admiration today for Old West lawmen like Wyatt Earp, who were highly skilled at exterminating vicious killers on the plains of Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. In Kevin Costner’s film Wyatt Earp, in which Costner plays the title role, Earp’s father (played by Gene Hackman) tells his son that it is certain he will one day meet up with some bad men who are irredeemably ‘vicious’. ‘You’ll know what to do when the time comes’, he says. Earp’s father, who is an Arkansas lawyer, makes clear that there is only one thing that can be done with such men. The first time that the young Earp meets up with a vicious outlaw, he is unarmed and does not want to fight. In fact, he risks the reputation of a coward. But when he realises he has no choice, Earp hurls a pool ball at the outlaw with lightening speed, knocking the vicious criminal off his feet before he even knows what has happened.
Earp’s lightening strike is quick, clean and effective. Previously, the cowboys, ruffians and soiled doves in the saloon had imagined that Wyatt Earp was inconsequential and possibly a coward. Now, they know the real truth: Earp had not sought trouble―in truth he did everything he could to avoid it―but when trouble came to him he knew exactly what to do. He had been well coached by his father.
I thought of the legend of Wyatt Earp when I first read the details of the killing of bin Laden. It seemed to me a telling allegory of how bin Laden’s death would be greeted in the United States, especially in the ‘red states’, where media attacks on Obama have been the ugliest and most racist. It is no accident that only a week after bin Laden’s brutal killing, Mike Huckabee, one of the Republican front-runners, decided to withdraw his candidacy for US president. An old Arkansas boy himself, Huckabee knew that the game was up. Later, Trump followed suit, unmasked for the empty braggart that he is. Barring some bizarre catastrophe, Obama has sealed his re-election with the killing of bin Laden. Even in the more reactionary ‘red states’, with the exception of a few incorrigible racists, Obama’s actions have proven that he is ‘one of us’. He has earned his spurs.
The killing of bin Laden has also reaffirmed the views of many ‘red state’ Americans that the United States is in no way, shape or form bound by any conventions of international law. (As a matter of fact, it is common to see billboards in states like Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas that read, ‘Get US out of the UN’.) In the United States and elsewhere, the troubling question of the US violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty was nullified by the fact that bin Laden was caught hiding in plain sight, undoubtedly with official Pakistani assistance. This, coupled with bin Laden’s notorious contempt for international law, made the claim of one of bin Laden’s sons―who stated that the United States had violated international law in killing his father―seem laughably hypocritical, if not fodder for late-night comedians.
The rest of the Wyatt Earp story is more troubling; if my allegory is apt, Obama may be headed for rocky times. As Earp’s career as a lawman progressed, as his reputation became more legendary, Earp himself became increasingly heartless and cruel. The question inevitably arose: did Earp become vicious himself, playing the dangerous game of the vicious killer? Earp also ended up getting a lot of people gunned down in cold blood, including his own closest family members. (I thought of that too when I heard that Obama’s Kenyan grandmother has recently received death threats from al Qaeda.) In the United States, Earp eventually became a symbol of how things used to be, before the Wild West was finally civilised. Earp himself became an anachronism and an ambivalent figure.
Like no other event in recent memory, the killing of bin Laden serves as a reminder that the realm of international politics remains lawless, and that the United States believes it is fully entitled to assume the role of the world’s sheriff, in this case with Obama in the role of Wyatt Earp. Furthermore, the sheriff is authorised to determine the identity of all those who may be legally killed in acts that are not construed as murder, but mere politics. As a lawman, Wyatt Earp was accountable to no one, and neither is President Obama. He follows his predecessor in assuming the role of the unilateral and executive ‘decider’.
During the siege of Fallujah, a US sharp shooter was installed upon a tower that overlooked the town, so he might more easily assassinate all those Fallujah holdouts appearing within the scope of his rifle. In an interview with a journalist in The New York Times, the sharp shooter stated that he hoped to become a high school basketball coach at the end of his two-year stint as an assassin. What was striking about his response was how obviously untroubled he was about the ethics of his job. The US public today also enjoys a completely clean conscience over bin Laden’s death. The decider from the Left has assuaged the conscience of all but the most radical pacifists.
Some in the Middle East, like the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, have suggested that the killing of bin Laden now renders the US mission in Afghanistan null and void. ‘There is no further justification for the US presence in Afghanistan’, some have said, ‘since they have finally done what they came to do’. One can be certain that this argument will gain no traction in the United States. The killing of bin Laden has instead fully restored US confidence in its own invincibility and in the imagined necessity to play sheriff in a world where the only law is the law of Samuel Colt.
The dilemma that this killing poses to the Left is that it reveals the dearth of coherent conceptions of sovereignty in most progressive analyses of US foreign policy in the Middle East. In his book Rogues (2002), Jacques Derrida rightly noted this shortcoming in the work of Noam Chomsky. We are a long way from inhabiting a planet where anything like Kant’s dream of ‘perpetual peace’ may be said to prevail. Until that great day comes, the appeal to idealist ethic principles, like those of philosophers like Chomsky, will continue to remain ineffectual in dealing with concrete dilemmas like the killing of bin Laden. ‘Deciders’ like Wyatt Earp, Bush and Obama will continue to make ‘hard’ decisions, not because their decisions are in any way ethically justifiable but because they are deemed politically necessary.
Obama is an imposing figure because he has revealed himself to be a leftist decider, a ‘progressive’ leader who will act decisively in the absence of ethical certainties. What remains to be seen is if Obama’s supporters on the Left, especially the far Left, will continue to recognise him as one of their own. It is probably in the Left’s interests to do so, but not because the killing of bin Laden is in any way ethically justifiable. Any effort to justify this calculated assassination is destined to fail, which doesn’t mean that Obama should not have acted as he did. It does mean, however, that appeals to ethical principles are mere alibis and idle chatter when it comes to the killing of any human being, even an infamous outlaw like Osama bin Laden.
By Christopher Wise
Christopher Wise is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Western Washington University. His most recent book is Chomsky and Deconstruction: The Politics of Unconscious Knowledge (2011).