Obama Crushes Osama! Terrorism War Not a Pep Rally

Obama Crushes Osama! Terrorism War Not a Pep Rally

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It might have been a big night at the Olympics, a U.S. hockey team taking home the gold, or, less probably, a victory in the most-watched television event on the planet, soccer’s World Cup. “USA! USA!” shouted the crowds in New York’s Times Square and outside the White House gates in Washington. Strangers exchanged high-fives in the streets. Bagpipers marched at midnight, playing the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

In fact, the television footage of roaring, banner-waving crowds was a response to the ambush and killing of one man, Osama bin Laden, by U.S. commandos helicoptered into the suburbs of Pakistan’s capital city, Islamabad.

There are good reasons to welcome the end of bin Laden, who was personally responsible for countless deaths and plunged Islam into violent crisis while claiming to defend it. But there is also reason to take a step back and ask what the celebration itself means – what it says about the contemporary world’s collective grip on reality.

The Olympics and the World Cup are sporting events. Viewed rationally, they are a form of entertainment: a showcasing of physical prowess and cunning by their performers, and for their audience, an escape from real life into a fantasy world where allegiances are expressed in favorite colors, rallying mottoes and acrobatic mascots.

By contrast, nothing could be more real than the life and death of bin Laden, or the context that framed it. The issues at stake in the conflict between the West and fundamentalist Islam touch on radically opposed views of the world, its ethical laws and its spiritual obligations. The hostilities they provoke reach back more than a thousand years.

To turn the aftermath of September 11, 2001, into an extended pep rally, culminating yesterday in a de facto victory party, does no justice to that terrible legacy, much less to the memory of nearly 3,000 human beings who died in the Twin Towers.

“Yeah! Our Obama killed their Osama!” one reader commented in the New York Times. In effect, the unfolding of history’s longest-running conflict has been reduced to a jingle.

Sports too, has increasingly degenerated into the realm of confused, allegorical confrontation--playing out, in thinly disguised form, geopolitical tensions that have nothing to do with slapping a puck into a net or kicking a ball into a goal.

The evolution can be dated back to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, when the great Jesse Owens’s heroics in track and field were widely viewed as a proxy challenge by the Allies to Hitler’s Aryan supremacy theories. (Hardly anyone mentioned the suffocating limits that Owens faced as a black man back home in America).

But if sports were flavored by politics in 1936, their full mingling into a single indigestible stew wasn’t evident until the Winter Olympics of 1980, when the U.S. hockey team prompted dancing in American streets with its victory over Russia. Since then, headine sporting events have often been read as political narratives, pitting the legions of good (the University of Michigan, Evander Holyfield, the San Francisco Giants—fill in your team here) against the forces of evil (Ohio State, Mike Tyson, the Los Angeles Dodgers).

On the overtly political side of the equation, the relentless merger has been building even longer. Richard Nixon, who was addicted to football metaphors, explained his 1970 invasion of Cambodia as a decision to “go for the big play.”

Former CIA director George Tenet assured then-President George W. Bush in 2003 that the evidence of Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction amounted to a “slam dunk.”

The phenomenon is by no means strictly American. Its dynamic is rooted in the worldwide growth of powerful, all-pervasive media empires. Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi earned much of his fame as the owner of AC Milan, one of Europe’s best soccer teams, and his fortune through control of his country’s entertainment broadcasting channels.

The party he founded as a vehicle for his political career, Forza Italia – “Go Italy!” – took its name from Milan’s favorite cheer and its abrasive style from his channel’s popular game shows. The combination has kept Berlusconi in office for most of the past decade, making him the most durable Italian leader since World War II, despite an endless series of indictments on criminal charges, ranging from tax fraud and organized crime links to frequenting underage prostitutes.

In the United States, especially, officialdom has focused ever more closely on the targeting of single, demonic figures, the opposing team’s superstars, in its efforts to sell policy to the voting public.

The tactic never quite worked during the Vietnam War years, even though Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon gave it a try. Grandfatherly Ho Chi Minh simply didn’t look the part. But in the years that followed, other enemies were more obliging.

Our national cheerleaders took aim, successively, at the likes of Manuel Noriega, Muammar Gadhafi, Saddam Hussain and Osama bin Laden, men who were visibly menacing and unambiguously brutal.

Get rid of them, the pitch suggested, and all our trials will be over.

There were inadvertently comic blips in the narrative. A strenuous effort was necessary to forget that the murderous bullies of Panama and Iraq and the architect of al-Qaeda had all been members of our team at one time -- funded by our military farm system or whipped into shape by our trainers. Gadhafi was suddenly transformed from terrorist monster in the 1980s to affable pal after 2001, then just as suddenly back into monster in 2011. A Dodger one day, a Giant the next, and back into a Dodger again.

Entertaining, much of the time. Successful as an advertising ploy, some of the time. But like most entertainment and advertising -- like sports – the essential point to such ploys is distraction from reality. Beyond the colorful banners, lusty songs and gung-ho cheers lies an inescapable truth: The world is a complex place, growing more complex with each passing day.

It’s not about symbolic monsters or games that can be won with a last-minute touchdown. It’s about conflicts with deep undercurrents, and the profound understanding required to defuse them.

Frank Viviano is the author or co-author of seven books, including the critically-acclaimed Blood Washes Blood, Dispatches From the Pacific Century and In the Balkans (with Magnum photographer Nikos Economopoulos).