The Once and Future Osama

The corrupt, vanishing body has fascinated and puzzled societies for millennia.  Evita Peron’s power was more significant to Argentineans after her death than during her life.  Saints tend to be more useful in a state of persisting decomposition than one of living composure.

Now, it is the Bin Laden phenomenon which appears, yet again, with all its mind numbing force.  Facebook and Twitter are overheating with the announcements that America’s bug bear has been butchered in his cave, or should be say compound.  The body is being held in US custody.

The death of Bin Laden, who was supposedly assassinated by US forces while in Pakistan, is irrelevant.  It never mattered than he was alive to begin with, given the very operation his organisation was supposedly running.  The same mistake was made by the Red Brigades operating in Italy during the 1970s ? one cannot attack the capitalist system by merely murdering capitalists. The nodal points of business still function with a degree of effortlessness, resisting the slight bumps of assassination.  Ideas do tend to outlive their holders.  As Roland Jacquard claimed in 2002, Al Qaeda ‘no longer needs either [Bin Laden’s] physical existence or his funds; alive or dead, he has become a talisman for a diffuse, self-sufficient terrorist network with every intention of fulfilling its mission to “lead the world into the apocalypse”.’  One might as well start bumping off the managers of Coca Cola.

The stories of the intrepid Saudi royal cross-dressing as he was moving across the Afghan-Pakistan border, sneaking out of his cave complex in Tora Bora were the sort of stuff that should have made David Letterman swoon.  In fact, he may well have thought about it.  Then came suggestions that he was keeping company with a dialysis machine, tempered by the occasional pack of salt.  Bin Laden had become, in short, something of a hyper-real figure, someone who defied the laws of physics in being both dead and alive.  He was everywhere and nowhere at the same time, haunting the West with video footage, pronouncements and promises of permanent retribution in the name of an imminent Caliphate.

Now, for a little bit of necrophilia, or at the very least, over familiarity with the dead.  This chat about historical bodies being appropriated, used and re-used is not new.  The historical record is rich with them.  Here, we have an eerie similarity ? the body of Adolf Hitler, which did its rounds with the Soviets when its burnt out remains were discovered, persists in remaining interesting for a few overly keen observers.  Did he go to South America for a long spell of warm weather and a dash of tango?  Did he, in fact, perish in the bunker with dog and wife?  It certainly proved interesting to those who discovered the body, leaving  Red Army intelligence with a fine set of dental records.

Indeed, for the mystics and conspirators out there, there is another note: Hitler gave orders on April 30, 1945 to his personal adjunct, Otto Gunsche, that both the body of himself and his wife Eva Braun would be burned on their deaths.  Bin Laden’s killing only just took place.  The stars have aligned, and the astrologers have united.

Given that America’s business is business, the news has been greeted with a certain degree of enthusiasm by money makers and brokers.  Economists and financiers are delirious as they take the pulse of the stock market.  Shawn Price of Navellier & Associates Inc in Reno, Nevada was beside himself in financial ecstasy.  The markets were moving; there was a surge.  ‘It’s a short-term positive across the board both for domestic and international export-oriented companies.’  More dead Bin Ladens, please, seemed to be the urging.  They just might help eliminate those damn recession blues in the US.

Bin Laden, be he dead or alive, will have little impact where it matters: the security environment.  The war in Afghanistan will continue with its blood letting savagery, aimless in orientation and worth.  The terrorist franchises will still operate in their specific areas of interest.  One may even hazard the reverse ? that his death will spark more enthusiasm and a recruitment drive.  Bin Laden dead is far better in providing myth potential than a living variant.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email:

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: