FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Who’s Feeding the Bin Laden Legend?

by LIAQUAT ALI KHAN

Professor of Law, Washburn University

Robin Hood and not Osama Bin Laden is the most celebrated outlaw in the English-speaking world. Part reality and part fantasy, Robin Hood has been written into children’s stories and adult poems, portrayed on the stage and in movies, examined and reexamined in scholarly research. Even in the realm of law, Robin folk tales raise intriguing questions about law and lawlessness. Is Robin Hood a good lead to understanding Osama Bin Laden? At first blush, any comparison between (Ro)bin Hood and Bin Laden seems odd, most certainly to the English-speaking world for whom ‘Bin Hood is a romantic robber whereas Bin Laden is a despised terrorist. The comparison might also displease Muslim militants who see Bin Laden as a spiritual sheikh fighting the crusaders. In the realm of manufacturing legends, however, the similarities between the two outlaws are so real and so fantastic that very little brush work is needed to draw them together.

The most bewildering similarity between Robin and Osama is their hidden presence. To this day, scholars who expended their entire intellectual capital on tracing Robin’s historical whereabouts are unsure whether he operated from Sherwood forests in Nottingham or from Barnsdale parks in Yorkshire. This controversy muddles history but nonetheless furnishes texture to Robin’s legend. Now cometh Osama! Despite technology and resources available to experts and spies and despite a $25 million bounty placed on his head, Osama’s whereabouts remain a deep mystery. Is he in Pakistan or Afghanistan? The tough mountains interweaving the borders of these two countries, captured in TV shots, add awesome scenery (a la American Western) to his inscrutable absence. And yet Osama is far from hidden. You can hear him on the internet and see him on Al-Jazeera broadcasts. The snippets from his old videos— him riding a stout white horse or him ambling down a rocky hill with a cane in his hand—are repeatedly shown on American television, adding fantasy to emerging tales of terror.

We know what makes Robin Hood a beloved outlaw and not a mere criminal. The romanticized distinction lies in the English folklore, generously expressed in ballads and poems written over the centuries, asserting that Robin’s lawlessness had a redeeming value embodied in his egalitarian ethic of wealth redistribution. “Never poor man came for help/and went away denied.” This non-conservative compassion for the poor sprang from Robin’s systemic critique that “how (the poor) toiled without their share” under the then corrupt clerical/feudal alliance. Robin and his Merry Men, however, were by no means bespectacled revolutionaries devoted to social justice. They were hurly burly ruffians, hiding in the forest, having good time, robbing bishops, killing the forbidden deer, and deceiving the Sheriff of Nottingham. Wanted by the Sheriff dead or alive, Robin is nonetheless a real hero in English folk tales “for not a soul in Locksley town/would speak him an ill word.”

Wanted dead or alive by the Sheriff of the World, Osama too is an outlaw. But he is not a thief; he is a master terrorist who strikes embassies, ships, and towers without mercy. One can build a legend around Osama, even a bigger legend than that of Robin, since the stakes Osama raises are high, the conflict he espouses is monumental, and his story, going far beyond the confines of a Nottingham, cuts across cultures, religions, and civilizations.

If the genius of an outlaw is to find law beyond law and to place justice at the core of criminality, Osama’s claims that he is fighting against foreign occupation, neo-colonialism, and alien domination sound credible to Marxists, Palestinians, war critics, and anti-imperialists. And if the genius of an outlaw is to establish a popular constituency that roots for his breaches of law, Osama has done that too. Muslim militants see Osama as a righteous warrior, some have named their sons after him, some carry his picture in protest rallies. Under the American pressure, Islamic governments are prohibiting the sale of Osama posters, T-shirts, and other merchandise. Such suppressions, however, deepen his cult.

Ironically, Americans themselves are feeding the Bin Laden legend. There is something in the American spirit that celebrates the outlaws, even violent outlaws. If Osama’s comparison with Robin seems grotesque or contrived, consider comparing him with Jesse James, Al Capone, George Musgrave, Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger. American fascination with outlaws and gratuitous violence, generously depicted in Hollywood movies and in the real time bombing of a romantically-lit Baghdad, seems benign, creative, stunning, fun—having nothing to do with real death or grief or loss or barbarism. And it is all legal. In this great tradition of violence starting with Cowboys against Indians, Osama is an exotic but a perfect fit. Produced in Washington D.C., directed by the CIA, and filmed in Afghanistan, Osama is cast as a millionaire hero, the 17th son from a family of 50, who speaks softly but carries a cane, who prays five times a day and inspires his Men to terminate Soviet helicopters flying low over the mud houses of a wretched Afghan population.

This alien hero, this entrepreneur of violence, this Osama, after successfully shooting the first movie against the Soviet evil empire—decides to go on his own. He moves the camera and the crew from an emptied Afghanistan to a city filled with skyscrapers. Planes hit the towers with real death and grief and loss and barbarism. This unprecedented though overly-familiar violence perpetrated in America against America, shown in real time, comes across as neither legal nor creative. 9/11 changes the world, the norms of reaction, the meaning of violence, the definition of artistic expression, fun, the gulf between law and lawlessness. But has 9/11 changed the celebration of the outlaw?

While American soldiers, spies, bounty hunters, television, radio, magazines, and private conversations pursue Osama to bring him to justice for perpetrating the crime of the century, and while Muslim militants pray and fast and plot to kill the enemy under Osama’s real or inspired leadership, the yearly festival at Nottingham recites the fifteenth-century ballads and later poems to keep alive the Robin Hood legend. One ballad opens with the words Attend and listen gentlemen/that be of freeborn blood/ I shall tell you of a good yeoman/ His name was Robin Hood. John Keats raises poetic scare by asking what if Robin should be cast/sudden from his turfed grave. Alfred Noyes makes an ecstatic call of Robin! Robin! Robin! All his merry thieves/Answer as the bugle-note shivers through the leaves. But the abbot and the Sheriff are in no frolicsome mood. “Seize him, seize him!” the Abbot cried/With his fat voice through the trees. And the Sheriff is mad as hell.

Ali Khan is professor of law at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. This article is partly excerpted from his forthcoming book A Theory of International Terrorism to be published in 2005 by Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. He may be reached at ali.khan@washburn.edu

 

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

August 30, 2016
Russell Mokhiber
Matt Funiciello and the Giant Sucking Sound Coming Off Lake Champlain
Mike Whitney
Three Cheers for Kaepernick: Is Sitting During the National Anthem an Acceptable Form of Protest?
Alice Bach
Sorrow and Grace in Palestine
Sam Husseini
Why We Should All Remain Seated: the Anti-Muslim Origins of “The Star-Spangled Banner”
Richard Moser
Transformative Movement Culture and the Inside/Outside Strategy: Do We Want to Win the Argument or Build the Movement?
Nozomi Hayase
Pathology, Incorporated: the Facade of American Democracy
David Swanson
Fredric Jameson’s War Machine
Jan Oberg
How Did the West Survive a Much Stronger Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact?
Linda Gunter
The Racism of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima Bombings
Dmitry Kovalevich
In Ukraine: Independence From the People
Omar Kassem
Turkey Breaks Out in Jarablus as Fear and Loathing Grip Europe
George Wuerthner
A Birthday Gift to the National Parks: the Maine Woods National Monument
Logan Glitterbomb
Indigenous Property Rights and the Dakota Access Pipeline
National Lawyers Guild
Solidarity with Standing Rock Sioux Tribe against Dakota Access Pipeline
Paul Messersmith-Glavin
100 in Anarchist Years
August 29, 2016
Eric Draitser
Hillary and the Clinton Foundation: Exemplars of America’s Political Rot
Patrick Timmons
Dildos on Campus, Gun in the Library: the New York Times and the Texas Gun War
Jack Rasmus
Bernie Sanders ‘OR’ Revolution: a Statement or a Question?
Richard Moser
Strategic Choreography and Inside/Outside Organizers
Nigel Clarke
President Obama’s “Now Watch This Drive” Moment
Robert Fisk
Iraq’s Willing Executioners
Wahid Azal
The Banality of Evil and the Ivory Tower Masterminds of the 1953 Coup d’Etat in Iran
Farzana Versey
Romancing the Activist
Frances Madeson
Meet the Geronimos: Apache Leader’s Descendants Talk About Living With the Legacy
Nauman Sadiq
The War on Terror and the Carter Doctrine
Lawrence Wittner
Does the Democratic Party Have a Progressive Platform–and Does It Matter?
Marjorie Cohn
Death to the Death Penalty in California
Winslow Myers
Asking the Right Questions
Rivera Sun
The Sane Candidate: Which Representatives Will End the Endless Wars?
Linn Washington Jr.
Philadelphia District Attorney Hammered for Hypocrisy
Binoy Kampmark
Banning Burkinis: the Politics of Beachwear
Weekend Edition
August 26, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Louisa Willcox
The Unbearable Killing of Yellowstone’s Grizzlies: 2015 Shatters Records for Bear Deaths
Paul Buhle
In the Shadow of the CIA: Liberalism’s Big Embarrassing Moment
Rob Urie
Crisis and Opportunity
Charles Pierson
Wedding Crashers Who Kill
Richard Moser
What is the Inside/Outside Strategy?
Dirk Bezemer – Michael Hudson
Finance is Not the Economy
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Bernie’s Used Cars
Margaret Kimberley
Hillary and Colin: the War Criminal Charade
Patrick Cockburn
Turkey’s Foray into Syria: a Gamble in a Very Dangerous Game
Ishmael Reed
Birther Tries to Flim Flam Blacks  
Brian Terrell
What Makes a Hate Group?
Andrew Levine
How Donald Trump Can Still be a Hero: Force the Guardians of the Duopoly to Open Up the Debates
Howard Lisnoff
Trouble in Political Paradise
Terry Tempest Williams
Will Our National Parks Survive the Next 100 Years?
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail