Center for Strategic Communication

by Scott Ruston

As details pour in regarding this past weekend’s daring raid in which U.S. Navy SEALs  killed elusive al-Qaeda leader and world’s most wanted terrorist Osama Bin Laden, the exact details of the events keep changing slightly. The New York Times titled an article covering a recent revision to the sequence of events and details about the operation as “White House Corrects Bin Laden Narrative”.

I would argue, however, the “Bin Laden Narrative” that matters most is not the play-by-play account of what happened, and in what sequence, in that Abbottabad compound. (In fact, I wouldn’t even call that sequence of events a “narrative” in order to avoid confusion about that term.)  While the details of who was shot first and where are important, the bigger narrative concern is what happens now that Osama bin Laden has been killed. And, my interest here in this piece is not an operational question, i.e. will Ayman al-Zawahiri take over as the leader of al-Qaeda or will another figure assert leadership of the terrorist network. No, my concern here is: How will the U.S. (collectively both the government and the populace) frame, conceive and think about the contemporary world order now that the number-one-most-wanted-terrorist story has come to an end.

In an earlier post I noted that narrative is more than simply the recounting of events. Stories and events are crucial parts of narrative: They are parts of the system that is narrative. And, systems are more than just assemblages of their parts. Systems have emergent properties, and in the case of narrative, one of those properties is sense-making.

Narrative, fundamentally, is a method of making sense of a body of information that includes actors (entities that act, not Denzel Washington or Natalie Portman), actions/events,  settings and even stories. Sometimes a narrative is a system comprised of actual events, real actors, and a collection of stories told about them. Other times, a narrative is a fictional construction. The factual and fictional domains can also overlap and influence on another. America is famously a world leader in generating moving image narratives (films and television), so I use examples from that art form in what follows.

As Americans, we tend to organize the world in the most simplistic of narrative structures, the binary. In a binary narrative there is one protagonist who is understood as the good guy.*  This is usually “us” or “America” or our hero-du-jour, be it John Wayne, Tom Cruise, General MacArthur, President Abraham Lincoln, or James Bond (never mind that he’s English). The hero represents all that is good and right about us. The good guy is opposed by the antagonist “bad guy.”

The original Star Wars film offers a readily accessible example of how the binary offers a simple and air-tight understanding of a world. In a galaxy far away, a young man (Luke Skywalker on behalf of “The Republic”) enters into battle with an archetypal enemy (Darth Vader, dressed ominously in black and leading the forces of the evil “Empire”). Understanding this world is simple. There are those allied with Luke and the Republic and there are those allied with Vader and the Empire. It is a black and white world.

Our predilection for formulaic, familiar and always-resolved narratives is evident in the overwhelming popularity of police and medical “procedurals” on American television. While these shows might appear on the surface to be more complicated than the binary just described, at base they are just that.

In most police procedurals (think the CSI franchise, the Law and Order franchise, and the host of newer shows like Castle or the newly remade Hawaii Five-0.), the “good guys” and the “bad guys” are clearly delineated. The police (and prosecutors) represent the forces of good, normative American society opposing a criminal element—classical bad guys whether they are on-screen shooting at police or the off-screen subject of a mystery investigation.

In the medical procedurals (think House or Crossing Jordan as well as the reality-based medical/crime crossover shows like, Dr. G: Medical Examiner and Forensic Files), the intelligent and committed medical practitioners battle their enemy, disease or mystery, and the disease’s ever-present ally of the ticking clock.  All of these shows, whether fictional or reality-based, share the common traits of a clear protagonist (individual or group), a clear antagonist (criminal or disease) and, most importantly for what I see as the dominant form of narrative in the American psyche, a clear resolution.

So, what does all this have to do with Osama Bin Laden? For more than 10 years, Osama bin Laden has been the Darth Vader leading an evil empire of al-Qaeda, Taliban and miscellaneous Islamist extremists. The antagonist umbrella even covered Iraq and Saddam Hussein for a period of time (before the lack of narrative coherence finally separated Iraq from the bin Laden/al-Qaeda menace). The binary narrative structure in which the U.S. fights bin Laden and his allies actually simplifies a complex geo-political landscape into a format already familiar to the American public—the Cold War.

A classic binary narrative structure, the Cold War narrative neatly divided the world into good and evil, protagonist and antagonist, and made understanding simple. With the demise of the Soviet Union, that binary narrative structure was disrupted until the advent of bin Laden. While both President Obama and President Bush have repeatedly asserted that the U.S. is not at war with Islam or the Arab people, neither would have had to say this if the binary narrative that offers only two options (you’re with us or you’re against us) had not been dominating the American psyche.

Iraq was a sub-plot, one that we tried to force-fit into the fairly simple binary narrative pattern of protagonist vs. antagonist. The lack of unity in accepting the Iraq campaign illustrates that it did not cohere with the overall narrative system. This is a good illustration of the narrative comprehension process. Data is received (actions, events, actors) and a template (such as the binary structure here described) is applied. If the data fit the template, a concise comprehension is achieved. If they don’t fit, back to the drawing board. The situation in Iraq has never conveniently fit the binary template, which gave rise to the considerable contention, confusion and lack of understanding surrounding that ongoing episode.

With clear resolution being one of the hallmarks of the binary structure (House cures the disease, Benson and Stabler catch their criminal, Luke Skywalker defeats Darth Vader), what happens to our narrative understanding of the world now that resolution of this narrative is at hand?  With bin Laden dead, does the narrative end and the credits roll?  Hardly.

The geo-political landscape is just as complicated and unsuited to a binary narrative today as it was a week ago (not to mention 10 years ago). It seems to me that we have two options. We can take the “24 approach” and simply discover a new antagonist. This path elevates Ayman al-Zawahiri (or perhaps, as our friend Jarret Brachman suggests, Abu Yahya al-Libi) into the antagonist role. Then we could continue comprehending the contemporary moment as one of conflict between the U.S. and al-Zawahiri (or whatever new figurehead represents the evil empire of Al Qaeda, Taliban, AQAP, AQLIM, etc.).

Alternatively, we could jettison the binary narrative structure, its simplicity of conflict and its obvious path to resolution. Perhaps it is time that our mainstream culture and mainstream media recognize what our troops on the ground in Afghanistan already know and deal with everyday. There is no simple us vs. them arrangement in Afghanistan, or across the Middle East. Pakistan seems to be playing both sides of the fence. The Taliban is only one of at least five different insurgent groups in Afghanistan contesting the American presence. The Arab Spring has displaced leaders like Egypt’s Mubarak (who by virtue of the binary structure became an ally but who is now revealed as a less-than-savory bedfellow), and has left only questions in the wake of the uprisings. I’m not saying there isn’t evil in the world that needs to be opposed by American will and American military might. But I am saying that in the complicated geo-political and socio-cultural landscapes we face, an overly simplistic and binary organization of people, events and actions into some sort of uber-narrative structure is problematic and unhelpful.

The considerable gnashing of teeth occurring right now over Pakistani complicity or incompetence in bin Laden’s concealment illustrates the flaws of the binary that has dominated American culture. Why?  Because we had assigned to Pakistan the ally role in our binary narrative. Discovering the archetype of evil residing in relative comfort 60 miles from the capital of an ally does not comport with a simplistic understanding of “us vs. them”. Politicians across the political spectrum are grand-standing and calling for investigation in the $4 billion of foreign aid provided to Pakistan annually, claiming, essentially, some sort of breach of contract.

The reality is twofold. As a single nation-state entity, Pakistan has multiple interests (deter India, collect U.S. aid, limit anarchy in the northwest, deter further extremist attacks inside Pakistan, assert Pakistani sovereignty, develop relations with Russia and China, etc). As a fractured, barely functional government, different factions exercise different agendas and thus the government may not act in a consistent manner. This reality means that elements in Pakistan might have known of bin Laden’s presence and some may have aided him, but it does not mean that Pakistan is secretly a member of bin Laden’s evil empire. It also means that Pakistan is not always a stalwart ally. Complicated.

What to do then? We live in a complex world and it is time for our mode of understanding to embrace that complexity rather than try to over-simplify. Rather than imposing one, dominant and over-arching narrative to explain all things, we should embrace the systemic (recognize that sub-components of narrative such as stories, actors, events, settings may play different roles in multiple smaller narrative systems), multi-layered (rather than one dominant explanation that all components fit under, recognize that narratives exist in parallel and at multiple levels) and intersecting qualities of narrative.

These qualities are increasingly apparent in popular culture in the field of transmedia storytelling. Stories that share some common elements are told across a variety of media platforms. The recent glut of comic book hero movies exemplifies the trend. Spiderman begins as a comic book (one with multiple titles, no less), then movies and video games (and an animated television series with an oh-so-catchy theme song, lest we forget) proliferate.

The stories told on these different platforms sometimes integrate, and sometimes contradict. Add in fan-generated fiction from fan sites, and the system of stories, actions, events, actors and settings proliferates in a complex and tangled web. Yet, despite contradictions, the Spiderman universe remains eminently understandable. Complementary (and complimentary) stories add to Spidey’s heroism, while contradictory stories can be held at the same time by the reader/viewer. These add nuance and multiple facets to characters and situations without compromising understanding. This is precisely because these seemingly contradictory elements are part of smaller narrative systems that are flexibly interlinked into a broader system, rather than components being force-fit into a single, simplistic, binary narrative structure.

From cowboys vs. Indians to Axis vs. Allies to the Cold War, American culture has been fond of its simple, binary narratives. This same, familiar pattern has been applied to America’s conflict with terrorism and Islamist extremism, but now with bin Laden’s death perhaps we can put an end to this detrimental over-simplification. Again taking a cue from pop culture, our political communication can embrace the complexity of narrative structure that the culture is clearly capable of managing, and drive towards a more nuanced understanding of the complicated world around us.


* it is almost always a guy or a team that collectively constitutes the good team. Female-lead fictional narratives tend towards structures other than the binary.