Narrating the Death of bin Laden and the Afterlife of bin Laden’s Narrative

by Bud Goodall

Sunday night President Barack Obama officially declared Osama bin Laden dead.  He began his speech with these words:

Good evening.  Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda, and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.

It was nearly 10 years ago that a bright September day was darkened by the worst attack on the American people in our history.  The images of 9/11 are seared into our national memory — hijacked planes cutting through a cloudless September sky; the Twin Towers collapsing to the ground; black smoke billowing up from the Pentagon; the wreckage of Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where the actions of heroic citizens saved even more heartbreak and destruction.

And yet we know that the worst images are those that were unseen to the world.  The empty seat at the dinner table.  Children who were forced to grow up without their mother or their father.  Parents who would never know the feeling of their child’s embrace.  Nearly 3,000 citizens taken from us, leaving a gaping hole in our hearts.

On September 11, 2001, in our time of grief, the American people came together.  We offered our neighbors a hand, and we offered the wounded our blood.  We reaffirmed our ties to each other, and our love of community and country.  On that day, no matter where we came from, what God we prayed to, or what race or ethnicity we were, we were united as one American family.

We were also united in our resolve to protect our nation and to bring those who committed this vicious attack to justice.  We quickly learned that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by al Qaeda — an organization headed by Osama bin Laden, which had openly declared war on the United States and was committed to killing innocents in our country and around the globe.  And so we went to war against al Qaeda to protect our citizens, our friends, and our allies.

From a narrative perspective our president provided a pitch-perfect set-up for what would follow.  He pointed to the singular events of 9/11, augmenting our collective memory of tragic images of unprecedented public destruction with the private images of personal loss and grief.  From this dramatic opening sequence he revisited the sudden coming together of all Americans against a common enemy, a terrorist organization and its leader who had declared war on the United States.

This opening sequence retells the tragic events of 9/11.  It rhetorically resembles the two post-9/11 addresses by President George W. Bush, two speeches that together created the terms guiding the narrative justifying U.S. actions during the past 10 years:  the brief message on the night of September 11 and the much longer address to a joint session of Congress on 9/20.  Yet there are important rhetorical differences between the approaches used by Obama and Bush.  For example, consider the opening of Bush’s 9/11 message:

Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts. The victims were in airplanes or in their offices: secretaries, business men and women, military and federal workers, moms and dads, friends and neighbors. Thousands of lives were suddenly ended by evil, despicable acts of terror. The pictures of airplanes flying into buildings, fires burning, huge — huge structures collapsing have filled us with disbelief, terrible sadness, and a quiet, unyielding anger. These acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat. But they have failed. Our country is strong.

A great people has been moved to defend a great nation. Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve. America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining. Today, our nation saw evil — the very worst of human nature — and we responded with the best of America. With the daring of our rescue workers, with the caring for strangers and neighbors who came to give blood and help in any way they could.

Bush’s theme was that America—and all that the American way of life represents to the world—was attacked by “evil” forces (still unnamed at the time of that speech).  Echoing FDR’s “Day of Infamy” speech following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Bush promises that “none of us will forget this day” and invokes the 23rd Psalm as both a prayer and a promise:

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil for you are with me.

Bush’s 9/11 speech and the later speech to Congress on 9/20 both recount tragedies in order to establish a just standard for a declaration of war.  Yet both speeches are more than calls for justice.  They are ideological statements that divide the world into binary opposites–“us” vs. “them”–on the basis of a clash, not exactly of civilizations but certainly of values (e.g., freedom, prosperity, democracy, justice).

Despite overt attention to the idea that the emerging post-9/11 war on terror was not a war on Muslims, it was nevertheless a just war that drew strength from “our” religious heritage.  From a strategic communication perspective, it was an unfortunate rhetorical choice to use Judeo-Christian scripture on 9/11, and it was certainly a mistake to invoke the “crusader” image in the speech to Congress (as Bush himself has since admitted).

By contrast, Obama’s speech avoids any overt reference to religion other than to reaffirm Bush’s firm conviction that we are not at war with Islam, and except to close the speech with the traditional political coda, “And May God Bless America.”  Nor does Obama invoke the values espoused by Bush in quite the same way.  Instead of pointing out how powerful we are in order to suggest, however innocently, a theme of wealth driving a righteous Christian revenge, Obama is more circumspect: “Let us remember that we can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are:  one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”  In other words, it is our core national identity, our character as a people, that makes us successful, not just our business model and certainly not any one religion.

In the body of the speech, Obama quickly passes over the intervening years in two short paragraphs that do not use the terms “war” or “invasion” to describe our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead he focuses on a narrower and more strategically useful narrative trajectory that is all about the hunt for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda:

Over the last 10 years, thanks to the tireless and heroic work of our military and our counterterrorism professionals, we’ve made great strides in that effort.  We’ve disrupted terrorist attacks and strengthened our homeland defense.  In Afghanistan, we removed the Taliban government, which had given bin Laden and al Qaeda safe haven and support.  And around the globe, we worked with our friends and allies to capture or kill scores of al Qaeda terrorists, including several who were a part of the 9/11 plot.

Yet Osama bin Laden avoided capture and escaped across the Afghan border into Pakistan.  Meanwhile, al Qaeda continued to operate from along that border and operate through its affiliates across the world.

From that brief assessment that essentially reduces the hunt for bin Laden to a failed quest by his predecessor, Obama moves into the heart of the speech, which is a clear assertion of his personal leadership and direct involvement with the actions that led to the successful completion of original mission:

And so shortly after taking office, I directed Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, to make the killing or capture of bin Laden the top priority of our war against al Qaeda, even as we continued our broader efforts to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat his network.

Then, last August, after years of painstaking work by our intelligence community, I was briefed on a possible lead to bin Laden.  It was far from certain, and it took many months to run this thread to ground.  I met repeatedly with my national security team as we developed more information about the possibility that we had located bin Laden hiding within a compound deep inside of Pakistan.  And finally, last week, I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action, and authorized an operation to get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice.

Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.  A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability.  No Americans were harmed.  They took care to avoid civilian casualties.  After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.

For over two decades, bin Laden has been al Qaeda’s leader and symbol, and has continued to plot attacks against our country and our friends and allies.  The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda.

This triumphant announcement carries with it an air of authority as well as finality.  It is a powerful message not just recounting the heroic events that led to the killing of a master terrorist. Moreover, it is to remind Americans that for an African-American who has in recent weeks was called upon by critics to “prove” his citizenship, deny that he was raised in Kenya, and to counter the rumor that he was a “secret Muslim,” this bringing to justice of the most wanted man in the world was a major achievement.

Yet Obama the pragmatist does not use the occasion of completing the mission to call for an end to vigilance:

Yet his death does not mark the end of our effort.  There’s no doubt that al Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us.  We must –- and we will — remain vigilant at home and abroad.

At this point the trajectory of the narrative is complete.  We have moved with the president from memory of the original tragedy that gave rise to the conflict between the U.S. and al Qaeda/OBL through an arch of carefully selected events that led, finally, to the successful completion of the mission.  As a leader he stands before us and proclaims: “Justice has been done.”

Obama the politician, who is necessarily mindful of his audiences and an impending re-election campaign, then gives thanks to public and private communities united in the struggle to find bin Laden:

Tonight, we give thanks to the countless intelligence and counterterrorism professionals who’ve worked tirelessly to achieve this outcome.  The American people do not see their work, nor know their names.  But tonight, they feel the satisfaction of their work and the result of their pursuit of justice.

We give thanks for the men who carried out this operation, for they exemplify the professionalism, patriotism, and unparalleled courage of those who serve our country.  And they are part of a generation that has borne the heaviest share of the burden since that September day.

Finally, let me say to the families who lost loved ones on 9/11 that we have never forgotten your loss, nor wavered in our commitment to see that we do whatever it takes to prevent another attack on our shores.

This secondary narrative completion is anthropological.  It is all about closing the cultural arch of a politeness ritual that began with Bush “asking Americans for their help” in the fight against violent extremists with Obama thanking those who participated in that heroic quest for their work and sacrifice.

But still this masterful speech is not quite over.  Obama uses the ending of his address to offer another narrative closure, one that reminds listeners of the unity we felt after 9/11 with the need to work together as a people once again:

And tonight, let us think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11.  I know that it has, at times, frayed.  Yet today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people.

The cause of securing our country is not complete.  But tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to.  That is the story of our history, whether it’s the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens; our commitment to stand up for our values abroad, and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place.

Overall, the speech and its narrative closure was a complete success.  Yet as important as the death of Osama bin Laden is to this storyline, as urgent as what Kenneth Burke calls “the symbolic kill” is to the morale of our nation and its warriors as well as to the image of the president as an effective leader, it is nevertheless little more than a good speech.

Unfortunately, the death of OBL is not the death of the OBL narrative. As many observers point out, al Qaeda is still a powerful ideological force for violent extremists. Ayman al-Zawahiri is a likely successor to bin Laden.  There are far more people worldwide who hate America than there were 10 years ago, and surely there will be attempts to seek revenge by those who see this final act against bin Laden less as the work of “justice” than as the work of Crusaders or “the Great Satan.”

It will be interesting to see how the events of May 1st translate into the ongoing competition for narrative dominance over our continued involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.  It will be fascinating to see if it has any effect on the uprisings known now as the “Arab Spring.”  And  it will also be instructive to see how bin Laden’s death—which is already being cast by extremists as the death of a martyr—plays on the world stage.

Ultimately it will be the task of those of us who study strategic communication in relation to these events to connect this speech to a whole new set of dots.  We are entering a new narrative phase, the endgame, of our involvement in the conflict formerly known as the “global war on terror.” Obama announced the end of bin Laden, but he has yet to announce the end of our combat operations in Afghanistan or the withdrawal of troops and “support personnel” throughout the region.

Given the timetable that he apparently plans to follow, that means that those of us who think about such things need to begin to think about how to leave the battlefield with our narrative intact.  In other words, we need to begin planning for how we will withdraw without the other side claiming victory, particularly one that reminds the world of the defeat of the Soviet Union, or of the crusaders, or of any one of the master narratives that depict the defeat of a superior force by small bands of true believers, armed mostly with the will of Allah.

Osama bin Laden is dead, but his narrative has yet to be defeated.

One Response to “Narrating the Death of bin Laden and the Afterlife of bin Laden’s Narrative”

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  1. Great analysis. Very helpful too those who teach, learn, or operate in the business of strategic communications, or as I prefer calling it, ensuring message consistency. Thank you.