Thursday, May 5, 2011


After escaping the battle of Tora Bora in the fall of 2001, Osama Bin Laden was said by his pursuers, who made their huge fuck up sound almost like a plan, to have ‘gone to ground.‘  This week, ten years later, when the villain was killed by a land loving team of Navy Seals acting on orders from our collective consciousness that we’d half forgotten issuing, we finally found out what ‘ground’ meant: not an impenetrable mountain lair but a glum cluster of primer-colored buildings resembling a foreclosed-on Motel Six. Government officials and the press tried to magnify the hideout’s stature (and burnish the legend of those who overran it) by calling the place a ‘compound,’ but its insides were just as grubby as its outsides. The room full of soiled bedclothes where the arch fiend codenamed ‘Geronimo’ mounted his last stand -- or fell without a fight, we can’t be sure -- looked like the crib of a  meth-head petty thief ducking the pepper-spray goons of Dog the Bounty Hunter.

It had to end somewhere, History’s Greatest Manhunt, but the fact that it climaxed in dull suburbistan next to a training base for the hunters’ allies proved less startling than the discovery that the hunt was still going on at all. Like the Tuesday morning shock of 9/11, the Sunday evening shock of Bin Laden’s death caught America flossing, concluding a tragedy that we’d stopped thinking about with a catharsis that we’d stopped hoping for. It was a moment of spooky historical symmetry, especially as it played out on TV. Down a long hallway that symbolized the past strode a grim-faced first-term president whose skin color, which we still notice despite ourselves, made him look like a figure from the future.  Just as we had when Bush spoke way back when, we knew by the time Obama opened his mouth just about everything he had to say, which only heightened our need to hear him say it.

What followed was a patriotic head rush, the first thrilling chill of tribal unity that we’d enjoyed in a decade that felt like three. For an instant, I was ashamed of this euphoria -- after all, a human being had died, and my taxes had paid for the bullets that blew his face off -- but then I relaxed and let myself regress, perversely pleased that geek-era America hadn’t entirely lost the John Wayne ugly streak that separates us from the Belgians. Like the pug-nosed New York City firefighters whose machismo I’d borrowed  ten years earlier, the Navy Seals aroused a part of me that I’d kept hidden but never out of reach, much like the hunting knife stashed under my car seat. It appeared that Obama shared my instincts. As he uttered the pitiless words ‘at my direction’ in reference to the lethal raid, his educated features hardened slightly.

Harvard Law Review, First Blood. 

There are times when one’s solemn duty as an American is to watch cable news for days on end and track a big story from its early stages as a government-sponsored morality play toward its mature form as a media-driven incoherent muddle. In the earliest version of Black Hawk Up: The Payback, a cowardly Osama with a gun ducked behind an unarmed woman when Team Testosterone tagged him with its red laser dots. How our guys shot around her and brought him down was left unexplained to protect our high-tech secrets. Later on, in a transitional version, the woman declined in prominence, leaving a slow-draw Osama to face the music of a so-called  ‘double tap.’ And then, inevitably, he had no gun, though he did make a move consistent with trying to fetch one. Same difference. Our heros shot him in the eye, as the photos of his corpse would prove. If only they weren’t too gruesome to release. At which point, out of nowhere, a dog entered the story.

This swarm of details fuzzed up the big picture, which gradually came to look something like this: the last remaining superpower spends pretty much its last remaining dollar mustering armies, building secret prisons, dispensing billions of dollars in foreign aid, and launching fleets of drones in order to whack a sickly terrorist who spent his days on a dank floor-level mattress making low-grade motivational tapes. Then a courier who we identified after years of reluctant waterboarding smuggled these tapes past a garden of marijuana plants (thank you, Twitter, for this zany grace note) into a Moslem world that barely resembled,  thanks to an unforeseen series of revolutions unrelated to religious zealotry, the one that spawned Al Qaeda in the first place and that we feared it would someday dominate.

We finally got our man last week, that’s a natural fact (although we may never know quite how we got him), but here was the trouble: history got him first,  reducing him to fat-Elvis, late-Howard Hughes mode.
Frustrating side note or devastating irony? 

I think we at least deserve pictures of the dog.


  1. How about Norah O'Donnell from MSNBC tweeting that Obama had been shot and it had been confirmed by their White House correspondent. Now we've had three days of people making that Freudian typo/slip.

    I was also impressed by the power of the twitter/smart-phone age in action at the Phillies/Mets baseball game, where long before any announcements had been made, the people in the crowd read the tweets on their phones and the rumors spread fast enough through the crowd that they started to spontaneously chant "USA USA"

  2. Great article.

    But I still think it mattered. Not sure a cost-benefit analysis makes it matter any less.

  3. Exquisite. Damn good writer you are.

  4. I don't know which I enjoyed more--your prose or your narrative on America. Thank you for the entertainment.

  5. Great post Walter. Just because everyone loves the analogy about cutting off the head of the snake, I don't think terrorism ends because Bin laden is dead. However, I'm glad we finally killed him (was there any other way?), and I have to admit, I'm glad it was on Obama's watch.

  6. that's one "double tap" of an article.

  7. Tuesday morning shock of 9/11, not Monday. I think the dog is classified.

    Great point about the surprise that the hunt was still going. When word leaked that the Prez was going to address the nation on a topic of national security, my first thought was Al Qaeda, but with the US on the receiving end.

  8. Amazing post. There are too many great lines to pick a favorite, but I especially love "what separates us from the Belgians" as well as "foreclosed-on Motel 6."

    Please blog more often! And whatever happened to the "to be cont'd" short story?

  9. Great post and excellent writing. I too feel a bit cheapened by government secrets and cover-up attempts. I just want to know what really happened and see it for myself.

    I am not sure of what may come down the road for America as a reprocution to these recent events, but I hope we can all remain safe and informed.

  10. However, I'm glad we finally killed him (was there any other way?), and I have to admit, I'm glad it was on Obama's watch. Gomez law Firm

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