Jacob's Opinion


Rethinking Narratives of Bin Laden's Death

Posted by Jacob Jacob on May 14, 2011 at 7:02 AM

It is interesting listening to students’ views about the death of Osama bin Laden. It is amazing the number of people that believe there is something sinister about the commando raid on the Abbottabad lair of the Al Qaeda kingpin. I do not blame them. I place the whole blame on the doorsteps of President Obama’s Communication handlers. The problem, I believe is not with the raid itself but with the narratives of the raid.


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There have been quite a few inconsistencies on the raid including how bin Laden was actually killed - ‘during’ or ‘after’ a firefight. During those crucial first 12 hours of the announcement, there was confusion over the most basic details of the operation – how bin Laden was killed. In his address, President Obama used the word ‘after’. He said “After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body”. This connotes that bin Laden was killed, not ‘during’ or ‘in’ a firegfight but at the end, or some time ‘after’ the firefight had finished. It can also be interpreted to mean that Bin Laden was involved in the firefight, but survived it and was killed thereafter. In the 1,387-word speech, the President only used the word ‘firefight’ once. It is significant that the only time he used the word was in the same sentence he announced the killing of bin Laden and the other very significant factor – custody of the corpse. Including 'firefight' in that critical sentence, I believe was a very carefully deliberated choice, although (as we have now come to realise) bin Laden may not have been armed and was not involved in the firefight that preceded his death. I believe the speech was carefully designed to associate the killing with a firefight but in a form that leaves room for ‘manoeuvre’ if facts emerge. But other senior Whitehouse officials in subsequent press appearances went a step further and said bin Laden was killed ‘in’ a firefight. Beyond what Fox’s James Rosen has interestingly described as a botched storyline, the Whitehouse’s narrative is an own goal on many fronts. In addition to creating avoidable distractions on the storyline of one of the most significant commando operations in history, it also gives Islamists a rallying point – that bin Laden fought gallantly to the death. When intensified and supported with strong rhetorical accompaniments, it can provide an inspiration for suicide attacks.



Does it matter?

Maybe I’m nitpicking, but in the absence of visual witnessing of a historically significant event of this nature, every word is important. In the postmodern world visual forms of media are dominant. Where they are absent, words become the greatest signifiers and can weigh significantly. If there were videos of the raid, the President and his communication handlers could probably have been spared much of the embarrassment of retracting and re-explaining. President Obama’s censorship of images of bin Laden’s corpse after CIA Chief Leon Panetta had earlier indicated that they would be released is not helpful. Personally I think the argument that releasing pictures of bin Laden’s corpse would somehow convince sceptics or conspiracy theorists that bin Laden was killed during the raid actually misses the point, at least from a communications point of view.

Increasing social, cultural and technological shifts from the verbal and textual to the visual makes a visual narrative of the raid as important as the raid itself. It is critical to the way people will remember and even engage with the exit of the bin Laden Factor. Bin Laden was not only a character or a person, he was an entity, a symbol. He represented (and still does) an ideology that seeks to challenge a civilisation and everything it represents. Bin Laden symbolised a belief system that the US, ‘the great Satan’ could be humiliated, harassed and taunted – a system of belief appropriated by radical Islamists across continents. For a decade, bin Laden remained a ‘dangling modifier’ of some sort – disrupting states, modifying foreign policies, inspiring radicalism. Merely announcing the exit of this ‘modifier’ and leaving the media to come up with various animated versions of the raid is simply not good enough. Indeed, the media have had to come up with a plethora of animations and graphics to enhance and indeed support the ‘dry’ report of the raid. There have been countless speculations and shadow accounts of the raid. This should never be the case for an operation of this significance.



Between McLuhan and Abbottabad

A few friends have argued that images of Hitler’s corpse were not shown to the world, so why should it be different with bin Laden. Well, that was then. Today, (to sound off Marshall McLuhan) our senses have evolved along with the kind of technology we have been socialised to. Our senses have evolved along with the technological enablements of social media, live images and animations. We have new innate desires to witness and even narrate events, even far-off events, as they happen. One of my most admired media scholars, Marshal McLuhan has written substantially about how media technologies affect the society, notably arguing that the technological medium itself is the message. Effects are delivered not only via the messages, but also via the very characteristics of the medium itself. Prior to television for example, we engaged with news and other media contents based on the unique capability or characteristics of the medium – we listened to radio, the literate also read newspapers. But with the advent of television, our visual culture has evolved, so have our perspectives. In today’s convergence culture, we engage with various dimensions of the media. I agree with McLuhan that how we perceive, witness and believe has been transformed significantly. After 10 years of our senses being socialised to the sights, sounds and narratives of bin Laden, we cannot get over the spectre of his entity and his symbolic representations with a mere verbal accomplishment of his exit. A visual witnessing of his exit is critical to the way audiences will re-negotiate their awareness of his symbolic representations and his ideology. Maybe someday, soon, there will be a Hollywood story-telling of the raid, like Jerry Bruckheimer’s re-telling of Operation Restore Hope in ‘Black Hawk Down’ or the various re-tellings of America’s adventures in Vietnam. But no matter how well scripted and how close to reality the storyline would be, Hollywood will not be able to pull this one good enough.

As odd as it sounds, I think President Obama's decision to censor pictures of the mangled and bleeding face or even the cleaned-up corpse of bin Laden is prudent. Still images grow to have a life of their own and can be interpreted to inspire different forms of meaning. However, it is different with moving images. If I was to advise President Obama, I would strongly recommend that selected helmet cam shots of the raid be released. Debates should not be merely about the possible violence and radicalisation such a release may cause. Rather, it should be about the strategic communication imperatives thereof. The way we interpret reality has evolved along with communication technology. Our awareness has evolved beyond a speech or press briefing about the death of the biggest terror mastermind in history. Still images do not come with pre-packed narratives and thus may be appropriated for different meanings and purposes, but moving images tell a story in a unique way and when accompanied by verbal explanations, it conveys a narrative that can be strategically directed and focused. Releasing selected videos of the raid – including the confrontation of bin Laden and the bundling of his corpse into a body bag, ending with its conveyance into a waiting helicopter, will convey a very powerful message. At the short-term, it may fray a few nerves, but for the long term, it will convey a visual signification of an endgame for a vicious symbol and his brand.


Categories: Strategic Communications, Asymmetric Warfare, COIN, Military-Media Relations

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1 Comment

Reply Jason
3:53 PM on June 12, 2011 
It sounds interesting, but i doubt anyone would have the courage to release those videos now.