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Stories, Characters, and Justifications of Aggression: The Case of Osama bin Laden

By Marisa Tramontano, PhD


And then there are those blessed with the gift of aggression, an overpowering need to protect the flock. These men are the rare breed who live to confront the wolf. They are the sheepdogs” (American Sniper, Warner Brothers 2014)


On May 1, 2011, I was standing outside the Woolworth Building in Lower Manhattan when suddenly I heard a commotion close by. I walked around the corner to see what was happening and to my surprise, hundreds of people were congregated by the nearly-completed 9/11 Memorial and Museum. Some were gingerly touching the names of 9/11 victims that had been carved along the edges of the infinity pools that would soon replace the Twin Towers. Some were climbing light posts and street signs with American flags waving in the breeze. Others were raucously celebrating and even drinking as they chanted, “U-S-A, U-S-A.” I looked around in bewilderment. I asked another onlooker what was going on. She said the US Navy SEALs had killed Osama bin Laden. But this gathering intrigued me to no end as I tried to reconcile a national self-concept that fights for life and liberty with this collective jubilance over death.


This experience led me to take a deep dive into the cultural work of the US propaganda that justifies the killing of Osama bin Laden. Specifically, I found that literary analysis of plot and character, when paired with sociological theories about gender and race, renders visible the production of political propaganda and explains common reactions to it. Through five years of research for a sociology dissertation, I realized the extent to which the gendered and racialized cultural logics drawn upon in the storytelling are simultaneously fundamental to the historical development of the United States and entirely contradictory to American national myth and collective self-concept. On one hand, the US is portrayed as a bastion of human rights and democracy, an exceptional example for the world, and a fundamentally egalitarian society that condemns bigotry in all its forms. This conflicting view – the shining city on a hill versus the gendered and racialized logics that sold post-9/11 aggression – offers a point of entry for those who seek to dismantle American cultural domination. While I undertake a distinctly American case study, the analytical tools used in this research can be applied to a broad variety of violent situations. Prepared with knowledge about the production of political propaganda produced by states and/or civil society, we can all be agents in atrocities prevention and obstacles to widespread acceptance of violence.


In this essay, first I introduce the case study of the hunt for Osama bin Laden and how the term “hegemony” can help us to understand the corresponding political propaganda that tells the story in a particular way to create a specific reaction to the events under study. Next, I introduce an analysis of the plot of this propaganda, using the common story structure of the Hero’s Journey. I then overlay the ubiquitous character scheme of victims-villains-heroes with the metaphor of sheep-wolves-sheepdogs. Finally, I connect gender theory and race analysis to the characters. In sum, when political propaganda uses salient plot and character archetypes, paired with entrenched ideologies about gender and race, states can quite effectively sell violence and war to the public.


Why has it been so monumental a task to teach more honest US history that doesn’t whitewash greatness, ignoring the genocide against Indigenous Peoples and chattel slavery of abducted Africans?

The hunt for al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden began in the late 1990’s after several high-profile inflammatory statements that culminated in the bombing of the American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. US President Bill Clinton was harshly criticized for a botched attempt at retaliation following the embassy bombings. After the “planes operation” on September 11, 2001, US President George W. Bush set the tone for a discourse dominated by dualistic morality, a Wild West dead or alive aesthetic, and a cowboy swagger. The world largely rallied behind the United States and supported what many hoped would be a brief, targeted operation in Afghanistan to find bin Laden and depose the Taliban after they refused to hand him over. When bin Laden disappeared into the mountains of Tora Bora, Afghanistan in December 2001, the Bush administration was infuriated and frustrated. After nearly 10 years, in 2010, there was finally a break in the American search for bin Laden that led, in 2011, to a Navy SEAL operation ordered by US President Barack Obama on a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan where five people were killed, including bin Laden himself.


The night the killing of bin Laden was announced, crowds assembled not only in New York as I observed, but also outside the White House and in other US cities where people chanted “U-S-A, U-S-A,” celebrating a tactical victory after a long, uncertain, frustrating hunt. At the Phillies-Mets baseball game, the only major American sporting event that evening, rival players and fans put their differences aside. One player reflected, “here we are, a team from New York, a team from Philadelphia, rivals, trying to knock each other’s teeth out, but the game isn’t that significant anymore.” Another said, “For one night it wasn’t Philly versus New York it was the USA coming together. That’s something special.”


How can we make sense of the reaction to bin Laden’s death? One way is to understand the political propaganda that tells the story, with particular characters, in a specific way, as a “hegemony maintenance project.”


The dictionary defines hegemony as “leadership or dominance, especially by one country or social group over others.” As in, the United States’ hegemony over the international system is built into the United Nations. What ideas are hegemonic vary over time. Hegemony in the twenty first century is capitalism. It is white supremacy. It is heteropatriarchy. It is colonialism and imperialism. It is normalization of all that. It is celebrity culture. It is everything we believe is inevitable, possible, natural, normal, or given about how peace and violence operate. But where does that leadership or dominance come from? How is it attained and maintained?

We can thank Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci for our modern usage of the word hegemony. From a fascist prison in Mussolini’s Italy, he wrote about how class domination operates, how it changes, and how counterhegemonic agents can win.


He argued that hegemony can be a useful analytical tool to better understand the power of a dominant culture that reinforces the ideologies that justify the current hierarchies, norms, and inequalities in society. It refers to a ruling class’ ideological and cultural control over the masses. It is a system that is largely consented to by us, the masses, by virtue of our belief in the current hegemonic definitions, norms, customs, processes, rituals, and sanctions functioning within society. This attention to culture is imperative because when we assume content and tasks are 'culture free' it makes change much harder. For example, why has it been so monumental a task to teach more honest US history that doesn’t whitewash greatness, ignoring the genocide against Indigenous Peoples and chattel slavery of abducted Africans? Because acknowledging that what we’ve been teaching as the hegemonic narrative, to use our new term, has been the story of the “victors” and not the oppressed, allows people to ask for more and destabilizes hegemonic control over the masses.

Why is it peace practice to know this word? Because a key hegemonic tactic for staying in power is to coopt everyday people that would otherwise be counterhegemonic agents into an ever-growing hegemonic coalition. For example, immediately following Sept 11, many feminists lamented the beating drums of war and wrote and spoke out against invading Afghanistan. The Bush Administration pivoted and said a huge reason for invading Afghanistan was to liberate women from the Taliban, resulting in many feminists changing their tune, supporting the war, and becoming subsumed into the hegemonic narrative that invading Afghanistan was just. If one knows this tactic it is much more likely one can out maneuver the hegemonic coalition’s attempts at expansion and cooptation.


Therefore, in what follows I dissect the specific story and character structures used to maintain US Hegemony and a hegemonic telling of events to sell the American reaction to 9/11 to the public.


Story Architecture and Plot

Christopher Vogler (2007) drew from psychologist Carl Jung and mythic studies scholar Joseph Campbell’sThe Hero with a Thousand Faces to explicate a 12-step story architecture as presented in Figure 1.


Figure 1



Figure 1: Vogler’s abbreviated Hero’s Journey

Source: movieoutline.com


Vogler (2007:xv) emphasizes that Campbell did not “create” this framework, rather the great accomplishment is “articulat[ing] clearly something that had been there all along.” While Campbell drew on ancient myths and Vogler claims there is a universalism in the Hero’s Journey, his adaptation is distinctly American: The hero is an “admirable, virtuous” warrior who brings about “happy endings and tidy resolutions” by “overcoming evil by individual effort” (2007:xix), and distinctly masculine, “sometimes critiqued…[as] cooked up by men to enforce their dominance, and with little relevance to the unique and quite different journey of womanhood” (2007:xxi). It is precisely these limitations to the framework’s universalization that make it relevant here. They highlight the valorization of the American masculine warrior hero deployed to retaliate against Osama bin Laden.


You will immediately recognize this plot structure from many beloved books and films: Heroes in an ordinary world experience a call to adventure that necessitates they travel into a special world where they experience all sorts of trials and tribulations until the climax where they approach the villain that called them to adventure in the first place and ultimately conquer all. They return to the ordinary world victorious, with proof of their valor in one form or another.


Let’s apply each of Vogler’s steps to the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Our would-be American heroes are introduced in the ordinary world before September 11, 2001, where they receive the call to adventure as agents of righteous retaliation for the 9/11 attacks. These heroes, and American society more broadly, then cross the first threshold, literally in terms of deployments to the rugged terrain of Afghanistan and culturally through a massive shift in policy and public opinion on homeland security. Once across the threshold, a CIA-Special Forces unit fails to capture bin Laden in the mountains of Tora Bora in late 2001 and the long hunt continues. The heroes encounter tests, allies, and enemies, confronting one frustrating obstacle after another while bin Laden remained at-large.


In late 2010 the CIA uncovered the identity of an al Qaeda courier, known up until then only by nom-de-guerre Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, and followed him back to the ominous, secretive, and suspicious compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. From that plot twist until May 1, 2011, the night of the operation, the heroes – all those involved with vetting the intelligence and planning the raid – approach the inmost cave. Crossing a second threshold, the US Navy SEALs endure the ordeal during the raid – a helicopter crash, enemy fire, managing women and children on site, the specter of the Pakistani military – but ultimately take possession of their reward, bin Laden’s corpse. Obama and his team experience the ordeal from the White House. The SEALs returned to the thanks of their president, desperate gratitude for closure from many Americans, raucous celebrations across the United States, and extensive news coverage and analysis. The SEALs returned with the Elixir, in this case not a physical trophy from the Special World, but a story with the power to heal. While some 9/11 families were not comforted by bin Laden’s death and some commentators were critical of the operation, these oppositional and negotiated positions were aggressively silenced when they attempted to penetrate the authorized discourse. Ultimately, the heroes return to the ordinary world where the story began. Many perceive their actions as serving justice and restoring some semblance of moral order, but an extreme, militarized, security-seeking social and cultural order has taken hold and things will never be quite as they were.


When one realizes that the story of 9/11 and the hunt for bin Laden follow the same plot structure as many of our favorite action and adventure movies, it makes plain why so many people swallowed the story, told in a particular way, wholesale, without much critical engagement of the disproportionate violence that ensued following September 11.


Character Schemes: Victims-Villains-Heroes, Sheep-Wolves-Sheepdogs

Elisabeth Anker (2005) explains that in melodrama – a sensational dramatic piece with exaggerated characters and exciting events intended to appeal to the emotions – there is a tripartite character scheme: heroes, victims, and villains. She further asserts that characters are often anthropomorphized cultural values. Victims embody esteemed cultural traits to render their lives more valuable and their suffering more tragic. Centering their suffering as a primary motivation for violence also offers a vulnerable population in whose name the hegemony acts, which I argue is an attempt to justify American violence. The villain, who is a madman with a personal obsession, not a competing military adversary, becomes a mortal object who can embody evil and be killed, unlike an ideology. And heroes are contemporary embodiments of historically entrenched American white masculinity dating back to early settler colonialism, simultaneously expressing the chivalrous masculinity of the logic of masculinist protection (Young, 2003) and the violence of global-dominate masculinity (Messerschmitt, 2010).


As with the structure of the plot, the ubiquity of these archetypal characters helps to explain why this hegemony maintenance project was so successful.


There is an additional layering over these characters that uniquely justifies violence by the heroes against the villains in the name of the victims. American Sniper (2013, 2014), a memoir written by the late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle and the subsequent Hollywood moving starring Bradley Cooper, draws upon the metaphor, originally put forth by retired Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman, of sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs to legitimate American violence. In the movie, Chris Kyle’s father tells his sons, “There are three types of people in this world: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Some people prefer to believe that evil doesn’t exist in the world, and if it ever darkened their doorstep, they wouldn’t know how to protect themselves. Those are the sheep” (Warner Brothers 2014). The original Grossman (2008) text adds, “If you have no capacity for violence then you are a healthy productive citizen, a sheep.” Kyle’s father continues, “Then you’ve got predators who use violence to prey on the weak. They’re the wolves” (Warner Brothers 2014). In Grossman’s (2008) conception, “There are evil men in this world and they are capable of evil deeds. The moment you forget that or pretend it is not so, you become a sheep. There is no safety in denial.” The film clearly takes the position that “terrorists” are the “wolves” that prey on innocent Americans. Finally, Wayne Kyle tells his sons, “And then there are those blessed with the gift of aggression, an overpowering need to protect the flock. These men are the rare breed who live to confront the wolf. They are the sheepdogs” (Warner Brothers 2014). Chris Kyle understands himself and his fellow US military members to be sheepdogs, those who “have a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens…A sheepdog, a warrior, [is] someone who is walking the hero's path. Someone who can walk into the heart of darkness, into the universal human phobia, and walk out unscathed” (Grossman 2009).


Grossman (2008) also reminds why the hegemony must constantly work to legitimate the violence of the sheepdogs:


The sheep generally do not like the sheepdog. He looks a lot like the wolf. He has fangs and the capacity for violence. The difference, though, is that the sheepdog must not, cannot, and will not ever harm the sheep…Still, the sheepdog disturbs the sheep. He is a constant reminder that there are wolves in the land…The sheep would much rather have the sheepdog cash in his fangs, spray paint himself white, and go ‘Baa.’ Until the wolf shows up. Then the entire flock tries desperately to hide behind one lonely sheepdog.


But what of the Afghan victims of America’s war? Textured portrayals of individual innocent American victims (e.g. Oral Histories) are in stark contrast to descriptions of Afghan victims at the start of the war, when there was any coverage of the human costs at all. American media audiences are rarely given faces or names to put to the death tolls in foreign wars (despite the advent of “the televised war” (Knightley 2004) beginning in Vietnam and continuing during the early stages of the declared wars in Afghanistan and Iraq), let alone victims of the undeclared wars and covert wars in many other countries. During early coverage of the refugee crisis in Afghanistan in late 2001, families fleeing from the American-led violence to camps are not described as innocent, their plight a tragedy. Instead, they are described in ways that would be very difficult for most Americans to relate to. For example, in a New York Times article by Tim Weiner, he quotes 32-year old refugee Tilawat Shah, “I saw a family on the way, a husband, a pregnant wife, carrying two small children and their belongings…They could carry them no longer. They kissed their children and left them in the mountains” (Weiner, New York Times, November 16, 2001). Instead of asking American parents to imagine being in a situation so dire, the Afghan parents were dehumanized for doing such a thing.


The familiar characters of heroes, victims, and villains, overlayed by the folkloric metaphor of sheep-wolves-sheepdogs to justify some violence and condemn others is further buttressed by deeply entrenched ideologies about gender and race.


Hegemonic, Subordinated, and Marginalized Masculinities

Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell takes Gramsci’s notion of hegemony and applies it in particular to gender. If hegemony is class domination, hegemonic masculinity is the domination of a particular expression of masculinity that is exalted in society above all others. This means there are multiple masculinities, a hierarchy of masculine expressions.

So first, Hegemonic masculinity is the unattainable, unsustainable cultural ideal of what it means to be a man. The 21st century has seen the rise of a super-human, super-violent, nearly invincible masculinity to live up to. If you believe the proliferation of Special Ops video games, movies, and TV shows – all part of the fabric of hegemony that simultaneously glorifies militarism and perpetuates the valorization of this kind of masculinity – a real man can carry his body weight over again in gear while holding his breath under water for 8 minutes before ultimately killing multiple people with near-perfect efficiency and accuracy. Very few, if any, actual men can or care to live up to its crippling standards for toughness, dispassion, superiority, and strength. Like any hegemonic ideal it marginalizes its opposites to prop itself up and even define itself. In other words, what it means to be a manly man is to NOT be feminine.

Hegemonic masculinity is perpetuated through masculine heroes in sports, politics, films, TV, advertisements, video games, etc. These representations circulate a particular idealized image of masculinity, and they perpetuate its norms as the way to cling to power in patriarchy as it faces counterhegemonic challenges from women, the LGBTQIA+ community, feminists, who can be men, as well as subordinated masculinities.


Subordinated masculinity refers to any expression of masculinity that doesn’t live up to the hegemonic ideal. So any guy who is deemed feminine or not hegemonically masculine is belittled into this category by hegemonic gender hierarchies.


Complicit Masculinities refer to those who favor war and violence, even if they don’t fight themselves.


Our analysis of gender will always be lacking without an intersectional approach. An additional layer of analysis important to highlight here is that gendered hierarchies are never immune from racial hierarchies and capitalism. Marginalized masculinities refers to men of color who are excluded from hegemonic masculinity not because of their gender expression but by virtue of their inclusion in some other subordinated category like being nonwhite, nonrich, nonable-bodied, etc.


White supremacist violence often wears the mask of sheepdog protectionism

In sum, noting different types of masculinities that exist in hierarchal relationship is incredibly useful to understand relations and conflicts between groups of men or masculinized institutions in which women also participate. Since the contents of these masculinities are shaped by hegemonic ideas related to gender, as well as by those that are not immediately related to gender, this framework adds an essential layer to understand the hegemonic manipulation to sell war.


This all comes together using the hegemonic framework I’ve just described. Sheep are the victims: women, children, and subordinated masculinities who can’t fight or protect themselves or one another; wolves are the bloodthirsty villains occupying marginalized masculinities because they are so often racialized (think Muslim “terrorist,” BlackIdentity Extremist,” Latin “Illegal Alien”) and sheepdogs are hegemonic masculinity (the valiant heroes that represent the actors perpetuating righteous retaliation, or selling the war. These hegemonic characters – sheep, wolves, sheepdogs – reinforce those social roles and norms further. Together they answer (to the benefit of the hegemony) - who is a deserving and innocent victim worthy of protection and whose social group is so maligned they are subhuman in the eyes of hegemonic agents, reduced to statistics instead of faces with stories?


This cultural work relies on the resonance of a chivalrous masculine protector, guided by his morals and his loyalty to his community against feral wolves, evil to their core, who, by contrast, use violence maliciously against their own pack and the sheep alike. And it works because of how many times it has been deployed. It’s the framing for those who ambushed Indigenous families in the name of protecting white people and property. It mutated for those who mobbed together to find Black men to lynch in the name of protecting white women’s sexual purity. It continues through attempts to justify the brutality of targeted policing of communities of color. It’s not just the Navy SEALs during the raid on the bin Laden compound, waged in the name of American security in general and 9/11 families in particular. In all these cases, the white male hunters are venerated as representatives of civilized, moral, surgical, defensive violence in contrast to the primitive, immoral, offensive violence of the “wolves.”


Table 1: Hegemonic Character Analysis

Actor

Character

Animal

Position in Gender and Racialized Hierarchy

US civilians

Victims

Sheep

Subordinated masculinities/Feminine

al Qaeda

Villains

Wolves

Marginalized masculinities

US military

Heroes

Sheepdogs

Hegemonic masculinity


Implications

In some ways, the post 9/11 drama as it played out in political propaganda is the oldest story in the book. From “the Anglo-American settlers’ violent break from Britain in the late eighteenth century,” (Dunbar-Ortiz 2018:41) to “their search-and-destroy annihilation of Delaware, Cherokee, Muskogee, Seneca, Mohawk, Shawnee, and Miami during which they slaughtered families without distinction of age or gender, and expanded the boundaries of the thirteen colonies into unceded Native territories,” (Dunbar-Ortiz 2018:41), from the “black people escaping to freedom [who] were hunted down to prevent labor loss to their white slavers,” (Dunbar-Ortiz 2018:83) to “the colonists’ savage violence across the continent that continued until the twentieth century, and the legacies of African slavery through such practices as convict leasing, legal segregation, rampant institutional racism, discrimination, police killings, mass surveillance, criminalization, and incarceration” (Dunbar-Ortiz 2018:131-132), it has taken indefatigable cultural work to reconcile America’s self-professed “democracy, equality, and equal rights” with this legacy of “genocide, settler colonialism, slavery, and empire” (Dunbar-Ortiz 2018:133). Therefore, white supremacist violence often wears the mask of sheepdog protectionism. The confluence of American exceptionalism, white supremacy, and hegemonic masculinity is evident in early settler colonial contact with Indigenous peoples, in slave patrols, in lynch mobs, in Jim Crow apartheid, in police violence, in mass incarceration, in Islamophobic policies, and the myriad forms of structural violence that maintain a staggering gap between men and women and white and nonwhite communities.


Using the Hero’s Journey and the Heroes/Sheepdog-Victims/Sheep-Villains/Wolves framework can explain other forms of US-perpetrated violence and atrocities in contemporary life.


First, to take US Special Forces operations in broader context than the hunt for bin Laden alone, hypermasculine sheepdog protectionism is a foundational logic of the expanding system of high-tempo targeted strikes, resulting in a “permanent social relation of a perpetual state of war” (Niya, 2013) that resembles a global and possibly permanent policing operation that is focused on managing risks and preempting potential challenges through continuous surveillance and strike operations. The public needs to know about this and think critically about the long-term implications of this shift.


Cultural values of American superiority, exceptionalism and just war must reconcile with a different empirical reality.

The findings also shed light on American gun fundamentalism and mass shootings. It’s become common sense that toxic masculinity – cultural norms that equate masculinity with control, aggression, and violence and that label emotions, compassion, and empathy ‘unmanly’ – is deeply problematic and no doubt contributes to violence. However, sheepdog masculinity’s chivalrous, defensive norms, black and white notions of justice and innocence, and its moral superiority constitute a dangerous and powerful construction for legitimating violence. It should not be offered as a healthy alternative to toxic masculinities. Conversely, with the ever-expanding militarization of society, the prevalence of the near-superhuman special ops aesthetic, and the availability of the deadly AR-15 and other similar weapons, anxious white hegemonic masculinity manifests violently through the clinging to power that comes from those afraid of a changing world and increasing frustrations of men with subordinated masculinities as they fail to meet the pressures of the standards of an ever-more toxic and misogynistic variant of hegemonic masculinity.


This propaganda reanimated and reinforced legacies that have been at play throughout American history and exacerbate and justify violence against Arabs and Muslims, as well as other communities of color. In particular, the US immigration policy that excessively uses detainment and deportation as a best practice stems from the same exclusionary, ‘us and them’ thinking of post-9/11 propaganda. In essence, Global War on Terror cultural logics have been applied to mass deportations; they are enabled by an ever-growing role for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency and have transformed immigration detention centers into the new Guantanamo.


Finally, as activist scholarship, these observations demand action. The lack of alignment between killing bin Laden and celebrating his death and a generous, moral, empathetic American self-concept illuminates cracks in the stability of hegemonic ideology. Cultural hegemony is successful when the world actually appears as simple as it is in the dualistic morality of the 9/11 melodrama. Revealing that these simplifications are designed by human hands both compels us to remember George W. Bush and his administration’s legacy as complicit in the production of a vengeful, fearful, violent, exclusionary zeitgeist, and offers areas for future research for how else American mythology justifies a monopoly on extreme, traumatizing violence.



Conclusion

Cultural values of American superiority, exceptionalism and just war must reconcile with a different empirical reality. First, we confront American domestic racist infrastructure. The American economy is built on a history of chattel slavery, convict-leasing, and unfair wages for marginalized communities, including but not limited to the exploitation of low wage, incarcerated, and foreign workers. Moreover, residential neighborhoods and commercial districts alike are heavily segregated by race and class, exacerbated by the process of gentrification. Second, we cannot overlook the history of US-led global imperialism, such as deprival of self-determination, ousting of democratically elected leaders, pillaging of natural resources, and maintaining nearly 800 military bases in more than 70 countries and territories. However, it’s understandable why many Americans don’t suffer from cognitive dissonance in the face of the massive discrepancies. It’s because there has been an on-going hegemony maintenance project that continually structured attention toward American exceptionalism and just war, underpinned by gendered and racialized rhetoric, to maintain legitimacy of authority, and away from these devastating realities.


The thing about hegemony is that you’ll see its logics and proponents maintaining the status quo everywhere now. It’s in the movies and TV we watch, it comes from the mouths of caregivers in our childhood, it comes from teachers and textbooks, and it circulates faster than ever on social media. So now that you know how hegemony manipulates, especially how it uses gender norms to ingratiate its norms into our own, I hope you will act. I hope you will be a counterhegemonic force among your friends and family, in the work you do, the classrooms you occupy, and as you decipher for yourself the messages of hegemony.

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