02 May 2011

The Political Lives of Dead Bodies (2) - Osama Bin Laden as Tee Shirt Icon

"Different people can invoke corpses as symbols, thinking these corpses mean the same thing to all present, whereas in fact they may mean different things to each. All that is shared is everyone's recognition of this dead person as someone important. In other words, what gives a dead bofy symbolic effectiveness in politics is precisely its ambiguity, its capacity to evoke a variety of understandings. [. . .] This, it seems to me, is the mark of a good political symbol: it has legitimating effects not because everyone agrees on its meaning but because it compels interest despite (because of?) divergent views of what it means." - Katherine Verdery
I have written posts here several times in the past that refer to a terrific book by anthropologist Katherine Verdery called The Political Lives of Dead Bodies (Columbia UP, 1999). Verdery wrote insightfully about the symbolic politics trailing in the wake of the collapse of communism. Today, the news again is fraught with the discussions of the political actions and interactions with and among the dead. Here is a passage from Obama's announcement last night:
Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.
The last phrase (stress supplied) struck me immediately. It raised the issue of how the U.S. military would proceed, having now assumed custody of a corpse. And that has become a theme in news coverage today. For instance, this report on Obama's speech at The New York Times quotes some of that passage and follow immediately with this remark:
Muslim tradition requires burial within 24 hours, but by doing it at sea, American authorities presumably were trying to avoid creating a shrine for his followers.
So, the speculation goes, American political and military officials are concerned to subvert Bin Laden's ability to coordinate and mobilize followers from the grave. And they are not alone. It seems that those ruling his own country of origin - Saudi Arabia - had similar concerns. Consider this passage from a Wall Street Journal report that takes up where The Times leaves off:

Mr. Bin Laden's body was buried at sea, in order to be in accordance with Islamic tradition that burial take place within 24 hours, according to a person familiar with the situation. The Saudis declined a U.S. offer to take the body, this person said.

Hundreds of onlookers gathered outside the White House—and at Ground Zero in New York City, where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once stood—to mark the moment. Frank Cantwell, a 64-year-old operating engineer at the construction site there, said there were only a few people present when the news first broke. "It's long overdue," he said. "You can sort of hear the silent cheers of 3,000 ghosts."

Unsurprisingly, Bin Laden and his legacy are contested and his demise certainly will be invested by different people with very different sorts of significance. Even our own dead - those "ghosts" mentioned in the WSG report - are taking part in the conflict of interpretations. Another thing that comes clear in both news reports is the urgency to comply with Islamic prescriptions on proper burial. Can there be any doubt that this was part of the mission as planned in advance? We must interact with dead bodies in specific ways and others expect us to do so. We, therefore, act in anticipation of those expectations. After all, as Obama was at pains to make clear last night:
The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda.

Yet his death does not mark the end of our effort. There’s no doubt that al Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us. We must –- and we will — remain vigilant at home and abroad.

As we do, we must also reaffirm that the United States is not –- and never will be -– at war with Islam. I’ve made clear, just as President Bush did shortly after 9/11, that our war is not against Islam.
In thinking about all of that, one set of images came immediately to mind. It is of Bolivian military personnel displaying the body of Che Guevara soon after they had captured and executed him.

The passion of the Che (10 October 1967, Vallegrande, Bolivia).
Photograph: Freddy Alborta.

There has, of course, been a persistent low-intensity political contest over Che's remains for almost half a century. Surely, having secured a DNA sample as "proof" of Bin Laden's demise, U.S. military and political officials wanted to minimize the possibility of an analogous fracas surrounding his corpse. Although we apparently lack (at least for current public consumption) a "Passion of Osama" photo*, the Bin Laden - Guevara analogy is hardly strained: massive U.S. mounted man-hunts in rugged exotic terrain for an extremely charismatic, ideological fanatic threatening to American security. And then, of course, there are the tee-shirts I've mentioned here before.
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*Does anyone doubt that such photos exist in the military files on this mission? If we have DNA samples to test we surely also have images to confirm events.

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