Thursday, August 19, 2004

Much Larger than Life

Few things have caused more partisan outrage and subsequent ridicule as the premature and inaccurate "mission accomplished" fly-in by the Aviator-in-Chief.  Perhaps less remembered, but no less erroneous in its implied promise, were the words "we got him," spoken by L. Paul Bremer last December.  Howard Dean was roundly criticized at the time for suggesting Saddam's capture would not have any measurable positive impact on our safety, a contention that has proved prescient as eight months later we continue to witness ongoing, even escalating, hostilities in Iraq combined with repeated terror alerts at home.  It is Bremer's "promise" that we should think about in contemplating the eventual capture or demise of Osama bin Laden.  While the latest reports suggest even the Pakistanis have no idea where he is, some cynics contend that he will surely materialize in the weeks before the November election — a classic October surprise.  While of practical political relevance, such thinking is ultimately beside the point.  Everyone, on the Right, Left or in between, would welcome eliminating this infamous character from the world scene, the sooner the better.  If, however, we think that ends the story, we are seriously deluding ourselves and missing the most basic lessons of human history.

Heroes, and bin Laden is most surely a hero to his followers, don't diminish but become larger-than-life when they are removed from the scene, most especially when they die.  This should be evident, to anyone who has an understanding of the history and nature of religion, which plays such a central role for contemporary terrorists, not to mention the current administration.  Whatever influence he may have had in life, Jesus became a religious super power only in death.  Without the crucifixion, Christianity may never have become the dominant religion we know today.  The same holds true for Islam even if the nature of the heroic figures are different. Mohammed made significant localized inroads as a spiritual and political leader, but Islam only spread across the world after he was gone. Death can be more powerful than life, far more powerful.

We don't really take control of our heroes until they are gone.  On the most elemental level, a dead hero can no longer take actions that may disappoint or make statements that might contradict our own thinking.  Death provides us with an opening and, more importantly, an opportunity.  We can now begin the myth building process, freely expanding the message and finishing the unfinished or unspoken thought to suit our own purposes and agenda, noble or not.  That is precisely what we can expect from the radicals who have followed bin Laden in life, and even more significantly by the not so radical but highly frustrated who see his movement as their only way out.

Dead heroes are like the global consumer brands that pervade our lives.  They certainly can't sustain without substance, but the real power lies in the idea of them, in their emotional content.  It is that larger-than-life aspect which takes hold of us.  People don't prefer Coke or Nike because the first is an intrinsically better beverage or the second a superior running shoe, but because each embodies a state of mind, something with which we can and want to identify. So, too, Osama bin Laden may once have been a person with temporal human attributes, a man who puts his pants on one leg at a time like the rest of us.  But that bin Laden, due in no small measure to our predilection for personalizing the "war on terrorism," is already gone.  When truly removed from the scene, he is bound to grow in mythical stature, most likely geometrically — immeasurably larger-than-life.  So his movement, far from being neutralized or even wounded, will likely be stronger than ever.  It is this reality that we must face if we have any hope of changing the potentially lethal course on which we have been bound for more years than most of us care to admit or think about.

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