The debate is literally beside the point ...
Certain roles men play are of a highly definite and determinate nature. They operate autonomously of whatever you and I think, feel, or say about them. Roles do not care.
The entertainment industry knows about such things. The Lone Ranger cannot marry the widow whose ranch he saved. Lassie? -- you can't separate a boy and his dog.
What happens when roles aren't followed, their limits violated? Examples, both trivial and profound, abound.
After the Fonz jumped the shark -- performed an out-of-character act -- number-one rated "Happy Days" declined and fell. In politics, after Senator Thomas Eagleton admitted he had been hospitalized three times for mental depression and undergone shock therapy, and after Senator Edmund Muskie choked up on the doorstep of the Manchester Union-Leader, a newspaper that had criticized his wife, their bids to be on the presidential ticket evaporated.
You dislike those outcomes? You can proclaim and defame to the stars above; it won't do a bit of good. Certain roles are impervious to debate, to legal or moral correction, because they originate in unconscious archetypes common to mankind. It is the unconscious that gives them their energy and longevity, as well as their impermeability to reason.
So, what role was bin Laden playing?
Perhaps the most unconsciously-rooted role of all: homo sacer.
This blog's post of 11/16/2010, "The Source of bin Laden's Charisma," discussed the homo sacer phenomenon. I wrote that, for Freud
taboo means, “on the one hand, ‘sacred’, ‘consecrated’, and on the other ‘uncanny’, ‘dangerous’, ‘forbidden’, ‘unclean’.” (Sigmund Freud, Totem and Taboo, edited and translated by James Strachey, W.W. Norton and Company, New York, pp. 24, 29, 30.)
Sacred and unclean? What does one have to do with the other? How can a man be both? Let's look at the words in question. In ancient Greece one word, άγος, meant unclean as well as the sacrifice that removes the uncleanness. Only later was the differentiation made via two separate words for pure and cursed; however, the same root was preserved, showing the original unity and ambiguity. (Roger Caillois, L’Homme et le sacré, Gallimard, Paris, 1996, pp. 45-6.)
Greece wasn't alone. In ancient Rome, one word, sacer, meant both sacred and unclean. When applied to a man, a homo sacer emerged. He had a place in Roman jurisprudence.
A homo sacer is a living fossil, a residue of an age before religion and law, the sacred and the secular worlds, were differentiated. Basically, he was someone
1. whom a popular plebiscite declared to be guilty of a crime as well as "sacred." He was then
2. placed outside Roman law.
3. Having no legal protection, if a homo sacer were killed by someone, no crime would be committed. However,
4. killing a homo sacer had to be performed without ceremony.
5. A homo sacer was banned from society. He was often marched to the edge of town, outside human jurisdiction. The gate was locked behind him. Wild animals did the rest. (Giorgio Agamben, Homo sacer, Seuil, Paris, 1997, pp. 81-96.)
Being outside of, beyond, human law and society, the homo sacer was divine and accursed. He was arguably the most ambiguous human figure that ever existed.
[Does] not bin Laden resonate all of the above? Romantic but forbidden: the combination of such elements is not at all foreign to American culture. Billy The Kid, Jessie James, John Dillinger: home-grown outlaws continue to fascinate and disturb Americans by the millions.
Clearly, unconscious forces are at work. Criminals seem to constellate the holy/dirty complex in its most dramatic form. However, other figures and events activate it. On the one hand, the president of the United States is the leader of the free world; on the other, he is a "dirty politician." We see the same unconscious complex at work on various levels throughout our lives.
Looking at the amazing ambiguity, at the sheer tension of numerous opposing terms that a homo sacer embodies and retains, we are looking at nothing less than the source of bin Laden's magnetism, his charisma.
Back to the present: it is understandable why middle class rebels -- Ayman al-Zawahiri, Anwar al-Awlaki, Mohammed Atta, to name a few -- would be drawn to a homo sacer. Ambiguity incarnate, he stirs up the unconscious ambivalence already haunting and hounding them.
You will find in the November 16 post a discussion of the strange, ancient Roman stipulation that a man declared to be a homo sacer had to be killed without ceremony. A legal trial, replete with oaths and black robes, is a ceremony par excellence -- unlike a bullet to the head.
Bin Laden could have stepped out of the homo sacer role anytime he wanted. His sacrosanct demeanor and stream of politico-religious fatwahs or edicts showed he had no intention or desire to do so. He totally immersed himself in his role as a sacred man, holy and cursed, pure and dangerous. He could not truly fulfill it, however, until he played it to its ultimate consequence.
I noted in the November post that Che Guevara, another homo sacer, was, unlike other guerrillas captured in Bolivia, not tried in a court of law but shot on a deserted street. I went on to say that
if bin Laden is captured, he will meet the same fate as Che Guevara. I opposed machine-gunning Che in secret, just as I oppose the U.S. government having a "hit" list. It creates the very thing it seeks to destroy.
In other words, no role exists in a vacuum. The U.S. hit list helps create a context in which bin Laden and other terrorists can be transformed into full-fledged homo sacers. The same holds for the $50 million reward -- a heavenly sum -- offered for bin Laden; it consecrated him as an uncanny, dangerously-charged "valuable" man.
The hit list and out-of-this-world reward are elements of a cluster indicating that, in the war on terrorism, we may be no more conscious than our enemies. In this duel of shadows, beware: he who controls the rules ultimately controls the game.
There is an expression, "suicide by cop." An individual commits suicide not by jumping off a building or overdosing on pills or hanging himself, but by deliberately giving a policeman no choice but to pull the trigger. I find it highly significant that bin Laden had only a token armed guard, no planned escape route, no secret hiding place.
In his final moment, was bin Laden armed or unarmed? Did he fight? If so, how? With a knife, pistol? The media are obsessed with those questions. Weaponless, wounded, unresisting: as Che Guevara showed, when a homo sacer is involved, those things make no difference. Cornered in his compound, bin Laden could not avoid the final outcome. Long before the SEALS showed up, he had already been taken alive -- by the role he was playing. To have been taken alive twice was made impossible by that role, a living oxymoron, with which he totally identified himself: a living martyr.
My statement that I do not believe Che Guevara should have been shot in secret could lend itself to the conclusion that I believe Guevara and bin Laden should have been legally tried. But I believe no such thing. I also do not believe they should have been shot. I am saying they HAD to be shot.
The second they touched down in the homo sacer's compound, the SEALS were in a state of exception: a place out-law; an uncanny place -- prehistoric -- contiguous to good and evil, beyond like and dislike.
They knew what had to be done. They did it.