Osama—Obama—Oh say can you see
In this corner stands President Obama and in the opposite corner stands— the specter of —Osama Bin Laden. These two men are the main event this week. A flashing headline: “Osama Bin Laden is dead and buried at sea.” The next moment, cameras are panning through crowds of people in the throes of celebrating this man’s murder. I sit transfixed, watching the crowds of mostly white people, sprinkled with folks of color. As I watch their gleeful celebrations, I experience an eerie, uneasy feeling in my stomach. It is not solely because I find it distasteful that adults are celebrating someone’s murder, or because I am in a state of disbelief. Largely, it is because of the subtle racist and xenophobic-tinged subtext beneath much of the celebration. As if to prove my point, just hours after the announcement of Osama’s death there is an incident in Portland, Maine.
“In Portland, Maine, just hours after Obama announced that Bin Laden had been killed, graffiti that included comments like “Go Home”, “Osama Today Islam tomorow [sic]“, and “Long live the West”, were found painted on the Maine Muslims Community Centre.” Taken from Fomenting Nationalism with Murder by Dahr Jamail
Beyond being the main event, there is an invisible thread that runs from Osama’s death to Obama’s praise for a ‘job well done’ by a public that again has the last CHEER. That invisible thread is the approval of the crowd, the acceptance of the American people. In this blood-sport culture, like a bad television episode of Spartacus, the crowds demand blood and gore. Interestingly, both gladiators have experienced the applause of the crowd. Although denied by the CIA, it is alleged that Osama was trained by CIA war experts in the USA’s effort to prevent Afghanistan from being seized by the former Soviets. If this is true, it would mean “[w]hen ’Holy War‘ was championed in Reagan’s war-by-proxy against the former Soviets in the killing fields of Afghanistan, Osama was” possibly a part of the reason why the US efforts in Afghanistan succeeded. Osama’s short-lived approval turned to infamy even before 9/11. The crowd’s insatiable appetite for carnage, its desire to be on the “right-side” of history comes at the price of many Americans demanding simplistic answers when only complex answers suffice.
From the campaign trail to the Oval Office, President Obama has faced the concerns of many Americans. I hope you remember the sweet old lady from Minnesota in October 2008. Yeah that one! She said, “I don’t trust Obama…He’s an ARAB!” Inherent in her heartfelt conviction was the primal fear of the big bad Black-Arab man (i.e., xenophobia, racism, and fear of the black other). She isn’t alone; these taunts and questions about Obama’s ability to govern have been present for his entire time in office. From Trump’s questioning Obama’s American birth, to concerns that President Obama was secretly a Muslim, his legitimacy as President has been under scrutiny. With the murder of Osama Bin Laden, will President Obama come out to be the people’s champ?
“How many Muslims does a black guy have to kill in one weekend before crackers climb down off his ass” Bill Maher
In one caustic joke, Maher nails it. It’s the complex racial and ethnic set-up of a black man using the death of a brown man to win the approval of a largely white public. Despite the 11-point boost in the President’s approval ratings since Osama’s murder, the verdict is still out on whether he can be the people’s champ. Even if he now can, there is a larger issue to examine–the contingent nature of ‘American-ness’ for people of color in leadership roles. Moreover, only when leaders from minority spaces prove they are willing to protect ideas or stances aligned with an imagined larger society (the crowd) are they considered acceptably American.
President Obama and other elected or appointed Americans with non-traditional names, ethnicities, sexualities, or citizenship status try to find ways to appeal to this “majority” of Americans. Sometimes in their efforts they compromise their message, shying away from associations with certain minorities, pandering to those who should instead be challenged! The consequences range from subtle (Obama’s televised chastising of black men for not being adequate fathers) to damningly destructive (Clarence Thomas as poster boy for racially controversial Supreme Court decisions).
Like most people, I find acts of violence reprehensible. There is no doubt that Osama’s ‘questionable’ decisions were bad for my country. I understand why Osama’s acts become worthy of terms like “evil”and“terror,” and why to many he became a “mad-man.” Yet why is it that the 150,000 +lives lost in Iraq due to President Bush’s ‘questionable’ decisions are just swept aside? Doesn’t downplaying the ‘questionable’ decisions of former President Bush all but erase ‘the axis of evil’ found here in the US (e.g., extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo, Operation Iraqi freedom and unregulated TARP)?
Funny enough, the cleanup crew would be a President with “Hussein” for a middle name. I am uncomfortable with the racial undertones so seamlessly stitched into this story. In this matchup between Osama and Obama, it isn’t just about America versus terrorism, but an epic story of race, nationalism, and xenophobia.