If we knew the nature of bin Laden's appeal, we would understand the appeal of terrorism in general, especially to middle class rebels at home who are being recruited by al-Qaeda.
Bin Laden's appeal is crucial in another way. His life depends on it. It is a major reason why the government of Pakistan, where bin Laden is living, has not captured or killed him. CNN interviewed Dr. August Hanning, who was German intelligence chief when the Afghanistan war began and bin Laden was fleeing for his life:
"It's hard for me to believe that [Pakistani officials] know nothing," he said, and in some ways the al Qaeda leader is useful to Pakistan. "So long [as] bin Laden is in Pakistan so Pakistan will get support from the Americans' fight against terrorism."
And Pakistan would be in a bind if bin Laden were caught, because to some Pakistanis he is a hero. "If he were caught the Pakistani government would be in a very difficult situation, because the Americans would ask the Pakistanis to extradite him."
Bin Laden a hero? How?
One answer in two words: homo sacer.
Let's start with what's obvious, inarguable. Bin Laden is a tabooed man.
Sigmund Freud identified a tabooed person as someone in an unusual situation, who has the power or "dangerous charge" attached to "all exceptional states." Hiding in the mountains with a $50 million price tag on his head, if bin Laden isn't in an exceptional state, who is? Freud also observed that 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 separate. 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.
Sally, 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.
The edge of town: the punishment prescribed by Roman law no doubt strikes many readers as primitive, if not barbarian. I regret to inform them that today, 2,000 years later, the equivalent punishment is alive and well.
Here's what happened to one homo sacer in 1968. After Che Guevara was captured in Bolivia, he was not tried in a court of law, as were other guerrillas and Regis Debray, Che's sidekick. Guevara was machine-gunned on a deserted street; nobody saw a thing.
I find fascinating that in Rome a homo sacer had to be killed without ceremony. Why that strange stipulation?
A provisional answer: the living usually have ambivalent feelings about the dead. "He was a wonderful guy, but … " The purpose of the ceremony is appeasement; it is supposed to make the defunct feel good so he won't seek revenge.
By not having a ceremony, then, a killer sends a message: he is not afraid. The lack of ceremony may help explain, among other things, Nazi death camps. What if the millions of dead victims sought revenge? That they were killed without ceremony implies the Nazis did not fear them. Hitler and his henchmen thereby signaled that their distain for their victims was total.
But was the implication of no fear true? It depends on how ceremony is defined. I think the presentation of Guevara's cadaver in a washroom was a ceremony; so, too, Jews and other victims were stripped, lined up, and walked to the shower rooms where they were gassed. In the end, then, those who didn't want a ceremony invented one. A deeply rooted fear burst through their denial.
In reality, deliberately not having a ceremony (if such a thing were possible) would itself be a type of ceremony. Bolivian officials and American CIA: take note.
Sacred but dirty, pure yet cursed: how can bin Laden's appeal be reduced?
The way to undermine a homo sacer status is found in how it is built.
The record shows that most terrorists are middle class rebels. As do most people, middle class rebels favor as weapons the very things which they fear will be used against them. Thus, the place to start looking is among middle class rebellion's icons. Max Ernst's painting, "The Virgin Mary Spanking The Baby Jesus," (see my previous post) comes to mind. What if a Bolivian schoolmarm wearing a Bowler hat had yanked down Che's britches, taken him over her knee and publicly spanked him, then put him on an airplane to Havana? I think you'd be reading about somebody else this instant.
U.S. policy for handling people like bin Laden is seriously mistaken. It plays into transforming a marginal man into a homo sacer. The latest case is Anwar al-Awlaki, U.S. citizen and cleric associated with al-Qaeda, who is hiding in Yemen. He is the target of a Wanted: Dead or Alive order issued by the U.S. government. Al-Awlaki's killer need not fear prosecution.
Sally, you express an often-heard opinion when you say that a man such as al-Awlaki should not be killed because to do so "would make a martyr out of him." But a martyr is not the same thing as a homo sacer. A martyr is somebody who is willing to die for his beliefs; in Greek, "martyr" means "witness." In English, martyr has come to mean somebody who has died for his beliefs. Makes sense: after all, you never know if somebody is really prepared to die for his beliefs until he has proven it. The only true martyr, then, is a dead one.
Unlike a martyr, a homo sacer is alive. What someone wants to prevent by not killing him, already exists. In certain respects, a homo sacer is an ultimate human contradiction: a living martyr.
I suspect 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.
To the contrary, if the list itself were destroyed, bin Laden and al-Awlaki would cease to be out-laws. Being a homo sacer is impossible without being an outlaw.