The Ghost of Geronimo
Marcus Daniel is Associate Professor of History at the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa
“We have a visual on Geronimo,” Leon Panetta told the President from his windowless command center at CIA headquarters, adding a few minutes later: “Geronimo EKIA [Enemy Killed In Action].” President Obama responded: “We got him” and, presumably, the small, casually dressed group surrounding the President, cheered and congratulated one another. A short while later, in front of the White House, ecstatic crowds of young Americans gathered spontaneously to celebrate, waving the Stars and Stripes, chanting “USA, USA, USA” and raising their fists and fingers in the air to indicate to the surrounding TV cameras that the U.S. as still number one. We had won this time.
The TV commentary that greeted the death of Osama Bin Laden struck the same stridently patriotic note. It was a great day for America. Finally, Americans had something to feel good about again. Adam Gopnik, a wise and well-traveled writer for the New Yorker, sagely informed us that the reaction of his sixteen-year-old son was typical of a generation which had come of age in the Age of Terror, and who saw the death of Osama Bin Laden, the “bogeyman” that had haunted their childhood and youth, as a defining moment in their lives. President Obama himself set the tone for the mood of national self-congratulation, announcing proudly to us all: “Justice had been served.”
This act of justice had been promised to us ten years ago by President Bush. “I want justice,” Bush declared in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, “and there’s an old poster out West that says, ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive.” “Wanted: Dead or Alive.” Bush’s invocation of the Wild West promised us more than an expensive and wearisome trial, or a lifetime of incarceration at taxpayer expense in the legal labyrinth we’ve woven around Guantanomo Bay. And Obama delivered on Bush’s promise. The unarmed Osama Bin Laden was shot through the head, and his body dumped unceremoniously into the sea. Catharsis. Closure. At last a cause for national celebration and unity.
There are moments when the collective American psyche seems all too visible. When the unconscious detritus and repressed terror of the past floats unselfconsciously and unreflectively to the surface. The execution and burial of Osama bin Laden is one of those moments. A moment of facile “closure,” when the buried past comes back to haunt all of us. In the nineteenth century, the U.S. Army hunted Native Americans, driving them to the limits of endurance and existence. Demonized as “uncivilized savages,” the U.S. government used legal and illegal means, fraud and force, to strip native people of their land, their culture and their lives. And the great American public largely supported these brutal methods. In the most lop-sided war ever fought by American troops, every Indian act of resistance, each small and hopeless victory, and none more so than Custer’s ill-advised effort to crush the forces gathered by Sitting Bull and other Lakota leaders on the Great Plains in 1876, was met by a public that bayed for Indian blood. Although white settlers and soldiers surrounded Native American communities, they portrayed themselves the encircled and embattled defenders of civilization. Indians, they claimed, were the aggressors: merciless beasts who slaughtered women and children indiscriminately, who deserved to be hunted down and exterminated from the earth.
I am not going to equate Native Americans with Osama bin Laden, or in any way attempt to excuse his murderous deeds by comparing them to the battles fought by Native American leaders like Sitting Bull, and Crazy Horse, and Red Cloud, and Geronimo. That task has already been done, although the comparison drawn between Geronimo and bin Laden by our own government is not one designed to exculpate either Indians or al Qaeda. Instead it equates Geronimo and bin Laden. Both were enemies of the U.S. Both were terrorists. Both were killers. Both were hunted down by the U.S. Army. Wanted: Dead or Alive. The only difference is that Geronimo lived to tell the tale and to become a stock character in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, but perhaps that’s simply a testament to the more civilized character of American society in the nineteenth century. In our own age, “Geronimo” has been ruthlessly dispatched and his body sunk without trace, lest it become an object of commemoration.
What’s most immediately stunning about the decision to call the mission to hunt down Bin Laden “Geronimo,” is its sheer stupidity and insensitivity. How could this happen? What fool suggested this code word? And why didn’t anybody in the military or White House think to question it? What was Hillary Clinton thinking? Or Joe Biden? Or Barack Obama himself? All these clever and knowledgeable people fell victim to the buried, collective unconscious. Because right from the start, the war against Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, the “war on terror,” has been an “Indian” war for most white Americans. And the logic is remorseless. All such wars are Indian wars. All Indians are savages. All American wars are against savages. All savages are the same. We kill savages. All savages deserve death. We are not savages. And the killing of savages is not only justified, but gives us great joy. It is a cause for celebration and national rejoicing. For euphoria. It helps us feel good about ourselves again. It regenerates and renews us. It restores us to our proper selves. It ends uncertainty and anxiety and alienation. It makes us whole again. Violence and death are a source of rebirth.
This is an old sad tale, many times told. Victory? The death of one man, living virtually alone in the suburbs of Islamabad, without a telephone, is a victory only for people who possess the most infantile and impoverished understanding of the world and the forces that shape it. And the forces that shaped him are still alive and well. If they have met defeat at all recently, it is at the hands of the millions of brave, peaceful protestors who have flocked into the public squares of Tunisia, and Egypt, and Libya, and Syria, not at the hands of U.S. special forces, flying in at the dead of night on black helicopters with murderous intent. In fact, these are the forces that helped create bin Laden in the first place. And justice? “Justice has been served,” claims President Obama. But what kind of justice? Vigilante justice. The justice of the Wild West. The justice of the Jim Crow South. Deadly. Extra-judicial. Heedless of law and due process. Heedless of national sovereignty. The same kind of “justice” that pursued Geronimo across the border into Mexico in the 1880s? The justice of arrogant force and power. The right of might. Unconcerned with form, and foaming at the mouth for revenge. The execution of Osama Bin Laden may well be the first global lynching: the extension of retaliatory, extralegal violence as a method of law enforcement from beyond its long-accustomed place on our own shores, to the rest of the world. That’s not cause for celebration. It’s not even a victory. We won’t have that until we finally lay to rest the ghost of Geronimo.
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