Language is a powerful tool, even when wielded by those unskilled in its use.
Strange then to see such an accomplished practitioner as Barack Obama learning the hard way that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword – and how easy it can be to cut oneself.
The “fog of war”/”blatant lies” arguments about the spin doctoring eminating from the White House are being done to death elsewhere, so instead I’d rather concentrate on the use of two words that are proving to be very subjective in relation to the killing of Osama bin Laden.
The first is “hiding”. I think it’s blatantly obvious that, by living in the heart of the Pakistani military community, bin Laden wasn’t “hiding” from everyone -some maybe, but certainly not everyone.
To continue to use this term is to validate Pakistan’s ludicrous claims that they didn’t know where he was these past five years, when he was living cheek by jowl with some of their top military brass.
Whatever he was doing – being “shielded”, “protected”, “under house arrest” – “hiding” wasn’t it.
If the first step to wisdom is, as the Chinese proverb says, to call things by their proper names, then we must stop saying that bin Laden was “hiding” in Pakistan.
Only then will we be able to get to the bottom of who knew what, who was trying to protect him, for how long and why.
Then there is the second is the word that rang around the world as the echo of the shots that killed him faded away- “justice”. Just as George W Bush misused it in the aftermath of September 11, so did Obama now.
Feel free to go ahead and claim your “revenge”, or your “vengeance”, or even claim “victory” (eight years to the day prior to that, Bush leveraged his unique brand of audacity and stupidity to declare “mission accopmplished” in Afghanistan. The troops are still there), but don’t claim that “justice has been done” when you’ve just seen your troops shoot an unarmed man in the face in what amounts to an extra-judicial execution.
Justice implies a moral judgement- that one side is right and the other wrong. Our western democratic sense of what justice is and how it should be administered is what sets us apart, and it was roundly ignored in the the race to ice bin Laden.
There was no trial, no gathering of evidence for presentation “before twelve men good and true”. There was no attempt made to take the fugitive alive. There was a shot to the chest, another to the head and a speedy burial. That, according to President Obama, is justice.
But the president was not for turning, and in an echo of his predecessor’s Wild West rhetoric, he made his claim that justice had been served, and repeated them at Ground Zero.
In speaking directly to an American audience, Obama he said that “justice has been done”, and in that moment he unwittingly legitimised every illegal activity that is or has been undertaken in the war on terror, from Guantanamo and internment to the audacious breach of Pakistan’s sovereignty during the raid to kill their biggest- and by now most irrelevant – enemy.
But there is no “American audience” any more in these matters. The whole world was listening, and many of them didn’t recognise this “justice” he spoke of. Many of them felt ill at ease with how it was meted out too.
But as he mused over the release of the death photos of the most wanted man in the world, Obama was to discover the great advantage of the modern media landscape. There is no quiet acquiescence any more, and those around the world that felt ill at ease were about to make their voices heard.
Because nowadays, what you say and what you do in a position of power can be analysed and pored over and argued until its true meaning in the wider scheme of things becomes apparent.
And the more one looks at the massive amounts of material and statements and pictures, the harder it is to conclude anything other than that this is the first shots of the next US presidential campaign.
This is Obama trying to tell us and the American voters who he really is, even if he is not. But as time goes on, what should have been one of his finest hours as president is in danger of backfiring on him. He could actually have fixed the bad guy, only to find that the folks vote some other guy in as sheriff.
What he and his administration needs to do now is start telling the truth, so enough with the “hiding” and enough with the “justice”, and tell us what really happened, and why.
It’s time to start calling things by their proper names.