A lesson from the Romans, for the USA.
This week, the Americans – the Romans of today – have killed a man who held an ideology they didn’t like. No doubt, they think that killing him will kill his ideas, his ideals and his outlook. However, I feel that it will not. In some way, by making him a “martyr”, the Americans may very well be feeding the legendary quality of this man. His death might be the making of his life – just as it was with Jesus Christ.
Now, before you leap to anger and confusion, I am NOT likening Osama bin Laden to Jesus Christ. The latter had a peaceful purpose, the former, evidently did not. They are very different kinds of people – but they share several things in common: their viewpoints were at odds with the establishment of their day. They were unpopular with the most powerful state of their time. They were troublemakers (in different ways). They upset the status quo. They also were both messianic in nature – inspiring devotion in their followers and making men do things greater than, perhaps, they thought themselves capable of doing. They were both motivators of men, and leaders of “cult” like societies. It is also telling to note that the response of the greatest powers of their times, was to kill them.
Of course, there are many differences between them too. Osama’s creed led to the murder of many people, in the name of his cause – whilst the opposite happened with Jesus Christ: that is many who strove in his cause, were murdered for their beliefs. (Though, of course, Al Qaeda devotees can expect the same outcome, too).
The danger for the United States and the western world as a whole, is that there are too many similarities, in the social and political dynamic of these two figures. It could easily be that killing Osama bin Laden could transform him, amongst his followers, into a prophet-like, perhaps even God like, being. He could become a figure of much greater symbolic value than when he was alive…just as happened with Jesus Christ.
Given this understanding, it would, I think, have been a whole let better if that unknown SEAL had held off, with the gun, and quietly coshed his captive and taken him alive. Being captured, has far less dramatic value, far less of the legend about it, than martyrdom.
I rather think that the American approach may turn out to have a price, in future consequences, that they would wish they did not have to pay.
A general principle may be suggested here: when dealing with a legendary and dangerous figure, nothing should be done to enhance the legend. In particular, they should not be killed, for killing the person, has a tendency to immortalize their message. The human dies, but their legend lives on and, in time, becomes far greater than they ever were in life. Indeed, only in death, is the legend free to grow so, for it is no longer encumbered by human limits. The new limit is only the imagination of their followers and the power of their unrealized hopes.
I cannot say what the words Osama bin Laden will mean in two thousand years time. However, I can say this: the fact that the Americans killed him, has greatly enhanced the chance that those three words will still have meaning in that distant time. Indeed, they might mean more then, than they do now. The “War on Terror” might turn out to be a very long one indeed.
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