I doubt that I’m the only person who found the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. Navy SEALS last year unsatisfying, both as a skirmish in an ongoing war and, looking at it a bit more flippantly, as a dramatic finale. For all the counter-espionage resources that it took to find the man, and the undeniable military skill of the SEALS who did the dirty work, it had the feel of “too little, too late,” and few people who have made the war against terrorism their business regarded it as anything but a footnote, nearly a decade after the 9/11 attacks that assured bin Laden of his place in history.
I’ll confess to some moral squeamishness in rejoicing, albeit half-heartedly, in another person’s death. As a moral lapse, however, I can’t say that it bothers me much, but I don’t think that it accounts for most of the shrugging reaction that bin Laden’s death engendered, then or now. Even used as a political ploy in the last U.S. election, it didn’t seem to have much traction for the incumbent president who used it as proof of his resolve, and his Republican opponents were easily able to brush it aside by stating that he wasn’t the one who put himself in harm’s way and pulled the trigger.
The death of bin Laden will have its dramatic weight tested for at least a few months more, with the release of Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow’s movie about the struggle to find and kill bin Laden, which was given strong odds for major Oscar wins even before it was released. It’s the story of the men and women who worked to find the most iconic terrorist in history, in parts of the world as hostile to America as they were sympathetic to bin Laden, and against the sluggish and even self-hobbling impulses of politics and intelligence agency bureaucracy.
Bigelow’s movie starts out with a black screen, and the sound of radio chatter, news reports and cell phone calls from the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, a montage of increasingly panicked, desperate voices that still tears at the heart today. It then plunges into the world of Maya, a CIA agent played by Jessica Chastain, and apparently based on a real person. She sits in on waterboarding sessions, pores over scraps of painfullygathered intelligence, and stares red-eyed at many glowing miles of computer screens.
At the cost of a personal life that she’s monkishly abjured, Maya works to unpick the trail of a man whose trail has gone cold, against the efforts of an enemy who learns to use the eagerness of western intelligence agencies for leads as a weapon against them. All their technological marvels seem useless against a man who simply steps behind the curtain of a pre-internet world, and when that isn’t her biggest obstacle, she’s undercut by her superiors, whose diplomatic careers rise and fall based on their ability to balance the goals of their country against the arrayed venality and hostility of the countries that her target relies on for refuge and support.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to state that she’s ultimately victorious, and the film’s final act settles on the SEALS who arrive in lethal-looking stealth helicopters, armed with technology and firepower that they wield with intimidating skill. As they hit the ground, big men in body armour, helmets sprouting multiple night vision lenses, they look straight out of a first-person-shooter videogame, and the film suddenly echoes the nightmarish sci-fi of the first two Alien films, as the SEALS infiltrate what is, after all, a deadly and alien world.
There’s little sense of triumph at the end, though, and Zero Dark Thirty makes a point of highlighting the ambiguous meaning of bin Laden’s demise. If it resembles any other film, it’s Sink the Bismarck!, the 1960 British picture about the battle to find and destroy a symbol of Germany’s military might early in a war whose outcome was still up in the air. Both films feature much scrutinizing of maps and screens, long stretches of waiting, an early catastrophic reverse, and an ending where the enemy’s defeat has the undeniable taste of ashes in the mouth.
The simple fact is that the greatest victory you can have over your enemy is consigning them to obscurity, and removing them not only from the world but from history. Emperors, kings, and pharaohs would gouge their predecessors’ names from monuments, while legend had the Romans salt the earth around the ruins of Carthage at the end of the Third Punic War, in the hope of erasing the place from memory.
It never worked, then or now, as infamy and fame are so similar from a distance as to be indistinguishable. Killing bin Laden might have seemed more effective if it had been done months, not years, after the 9/11 attacks, and in parts of the world where he’s celebrated in the same breath that insists that the attacks were really carried out by America, Israel, or both, bin Laden’s death is as likely to be regarded as stage-managed propaganda.
In any case we left the world where bin Laden mattered months before he was dead, as soon as a series of bloody revolutions left Islamist leaders and parties with more political power than they could have dreamed of a decade ago.
In Zero Dark Thirty, a senior official close to President Obama demands to know if the CIA is certain that the man they’ve found hiding in the walled compound is bin Laden. The official says that while it appears that the administration is being sluggish about acting, it’s simply because they want to work with the best available information. “The President is a thoughtful and analytical guy,” he explains.
It’s the closest the film gets to retailing defensive spin, and even if I ignored my instincts and considered it true, I’m not sure any surplus of thought and analysis could help any individual, no matter how powerful, dam up or channel the malign currents we seem to be swimming against right now. Truly significant decisions don’t often reveal their importance until long after they’re made, and as we live through it, history is something that is simply endured, not shaped. And in the end, killing one man can be judged as simple math – an insignificant sum when balanced against the death of hundreds, thousands, or millions.