The End of Cobra Commander by The Teafaerie
My friend Andre was 4 years old the day that Osama Bin Laden became a household name. I was Andre’s nanny, so I was one of the people who had to explain it all to him. We talked about it kind of a lot, actually. I was away when it happened, but I guess his parents had been glued to the television for days, and by the time I was able to get in and do some damage control he was already suffering from secondhand exposure to Fox News. When I asked him what he had gleaned from the amalgamated hysteria, he told me that the real-life Cobra Commander had blown up a bunch of big buildings with airplanes and he said that he was just going to keep on trying to blow stuff up but the army was going to go find him and kill him so we didn’t have to worry. Right?
I assured him that the Army would almost certainly get Osama Bin Laden, since we had like a million army guys and he was just one man who anyway wasn’t going to be able to make too many evil plans now because he was going to have to be pretty busy hiding from the Army for his whole life. I tried to simplify and soften it for him. I tried to help him to feel safe. I honestly don’t think he ever really felt completely safe again, though. 9/11 was some kind of a turning point for Andre. Before that day he had never been really afraid of anything, or rather he had never been afraid of anything real. I mean he was afraid of monsters and the like, but that was different because he didn’t actually believe in monsters, and he could turn it off whenever he got over the thrill and decided to shake some sense into himself. I think maybe it was the first time that he became aware that the politics of the larger world could effect him personally in ways that he was ultimately powerless to control.
Our favorite games up until that point had always involved Star Wars toys, whose complex web of interrelationships allowed for a robust modeling of a wide variety of human interactions. (I had taken a stand for only letting him watch the classic canon but I lost, and he was forever handing me Amidala to play opposite his Little Anakin, a relationship that I found mildly disconcerting.) In the weeks and months that followed the attacks on 9/11, Andre started abandoning the Star Wars figures in favor of GI Joe, whose guys have more moving parts and thus explode in more satisfying ways when you throw a model airplane at the gigantic block towers that they’re supposed to be guarding. After a while he switched sides and decided to play Cobra Commander, I guess because it took him out of the victims seat and put him in what he perceived to be the position of power. It might also have been because Cobra Commander was the coolest action figure. For months Andre carried the faceless villain with him everywhere, at once a strange sort of companion and a totemic representation of his deepest fears. I really worried when he started sleeping with it, though. When I asked him why he wanted to do that, he said it was so he would always know exactly where it was.
Andre asked me about Bin Laden every day for a while, and at least weekly for all of the rest of that last year we were to spend together. Had they caught him yet? Was he still alive? When our errands and adventures took us to places like banks or museums he would become reluctant, explaining that they seemed like something Osama Bin Laden might like to blow up. I made him go in anyway, of course, we don’t stay out of the yard just because we might get stung by a bee. And if we let him make us all afraid to go out and do stuff then he wins because that’s what he wanted us to feel. Right?
I fervently hoped that they would find him quickly, if only to ease my poor little friend’s troubled mind. But they never did find him. Which really sucked, because that’s not the way the story is supposed to go. We’re supposed to kill the bad guy and get some closure at all costs. Suddenly at war with an amorphous enemy that can never be fully defeated, many of us, like my little friend Andre, slapped Osama Bin Laden’s face on that steely mask of terror, painted a target on it, and defined revenge as victory. Which was actually kind of emotionally intelligent, even if it’s also real-world stupid. How do you purge free-floating anxiety? First you have to create an effective ritual. Objectify your fear and then destroy the object that has become the fear’s symbol. Pick or plan a near future event and invest it with significance. When we kill Osama Bin Laden, then we can all stop waiting for the sky to fall. It was the natural and obvious outcome to invest in, especially since most of us expected it to be coming right up. Everybody had their spring-loaded catharsis all cocked and ready to go. We waited and we waited and we waited. But the other shoe never dropped, the parenthesis never closed, nobody ever knocked the last two knocks of shave-and-a-hair-cut, and eventually the world forgot that it was holding it’s breath.
Until a week ago. When I heard about Osama Bin Laden’s death (on the car radio while stuck in Los Angeles traffic) the first thing I thought about was Andre, although I haven’t actually seen him since the night that Revenge of the Sith came out. Gosh, he must be 13 years old! I wondered if he was still a nervous kid, and if he would somehow sleep easier now knowing that GI Joe had finally gotten Cobra Commander. I pictured him digging out his old battle-worn blue action figure, kept safe all these years in the sort of box where boys keep their best treasures, and burying him in the back yard. I visualised a pubescent Andre dancing on Osama Bin Laden’s mock grave and it gave me a warm sense of long-awaited satisfaction. Which lasted for about a minute or so. I kind of wish that I had made it last a little bit longer, because I could certainly use the catharsis myself.
I mean, insomuch as a person’s death can ever really be said to be a cause for celebration, I think that most of us can agree that the world is well rid of Osama Bin Laden. He’s the closest thing to a cartoon bad guy that our generation has ever seen. Not since Adolph Hitler and etc, and I’m sure that there was jubilation in the streets when Hitler died, too, and that’s just human nature for you and I get it. We’re programmed to think in terms of good guys and bad guys, and Osama Bin Laden was the 21st Century’s first supernemisis. And he was totally taken down by the ultimate Top Secret Navy SEAL Action Team, too, just like in the movies. Go Joe! Obama made good on his campaign promise to do the obvious thing if his number happened to come up, and the United States seized a bunch of valuable data that will almost certainly help save innocent lives and bring more dangerous terrorists to justice. The media went into an orgiastic feeding frenzy, of course, and the families of 9/11 victims were finally granted a modicum of closure. Even the conspiracy theorists who were still choking on the president’s birth certificate were made happy by last Sunday’s events, having been tossed a new bone by the admittedly suspicious or at least suspiciously hasty-seeming burial at sea ploy. It’s a big bundle of Win all around. Ding dong, the witch is dead! Let the glorious news be spread. Right?
Osama Bin Laden isn’t Cobra Commander, though, and it’s hard for me to pretend to myself that he is. For those of you who don’t remember the old GI Joe cartoon or the recent Hollywood movie, Cobra Commander is the fictional leader of the Vicious Evil Network of Mayhem, an international terrorist organization that, like al Quaeda, has an egregious propensity for causing massive civilian casualties. There’s an important difference, though. VENOM has evil right in it’s name, and it’s goals essentially boil down to world domination. Osama Bin Laden, on the other hand, was a different kind of madman entirely. A vastly more dangerous kind, when it comes right down to it. As wrongheaded as he was, Osama was never out to do evil for it’s own sake. He surely did things that were evil, by any reasonable definition of the word, and he was doubtless plotting to do much worse. But from his own point of view, and from that of his followers, he was the scrappy underdog hero who risked everything to strike a blow against a hostile and aggressive superpower. I bet he really honestly did pray 5 times a day, as strange as that sounds, and I bet that in his heart he never really thought of himself as a bad man. As far as I understand it, nothing in the Koran justifies what he did, so I’m not saying that he’s golden according to Islam. Quite the reverse. On the other hand I believe that President Obama probably really does pray to something like the Christian God sometimes, and the Bible quite clearly says Thou Shalt Not Kill. I guess they were both determined enough to disobey the very Gods and to risk their immortal souls to accomplish political ends. Does that make either one of them evil? Does it make either one of them a hero? How about a hypocrite? Osama Bin Laden just wanted the United States to go away. He wanted a homeland for his people and respect for his religious tradition.
He also wanted the streets of American cities to glisten with the blood of our innocents, and he had demonstrated a full-on willingness to go there, so he needed to be locked up or put down. No argument. But remember that from the other side, the goons who hijacked our airplanes are seen as the brave Rebel Alliance guys who proudly gave their lives to put a big ding in the Deathstar. No, really. It’s almost exactly like that for them. And who mourns for all of the stormtroopers that got vaporised? What about all the desk clerks and the radio guys and the funny little aliens who work at the Death Star cafeteria? “Shouldn’t have been working for the Empire,” we say, and shrug dismissively. Right?
A good friend of mine worked in the Twin Towers, at just about airplane height. He survived because his wife went into labor early, and he stayed home to welcome his son into a world that would be forever changed. My friend admits that from a certain point of view he was pretty much working for the Empire, when you come right down to it. The big financial institution that employed him to streamline it’s data flow wasn’t exactly evil by most Americans definition, but for sure it was part of the business-as-usual machine doing what it does. And some people (like most of us who are privileged to be able to read this on the internet) are really stoked out by that machine on a regular basis, at least as far as the availability of cheap commodities and a relatively high standard of living go. But there are other people out there who feel like they’re getting screwed by it. There are a lot of intelligent and righteous people in the world who have good reasons to resent American adventure politics and our unapologetic and self-serving interference in what they perceive to be local affairs. Many of them see us as a morally bankrupt culture with a cancerous consumer agenda that threatens all life on Earth. Which is not to say that the murder of my friend’s office mates, many of them parents themselves, was in any sense justified. There are no excuses for what Osama Bin Laden and his co-conspirators did. But there are explanations, and it would serve us to get a grip on the complex causes of of a phenomenon like al Quaeda before we condemn ourselves to repeat a history that we never really tried to understand in the first place.
By Monday afternoon my slightly guilty sense of satsisfaction was replaced by a creeping nausea. I kept refreshing the news, even though I knew better. Click. A beamish Obama says what a good boy am I. Click. Al Quaeda vows unspeakable revenge. Click. A burial at sea suggests an immersion in the unconscious to me. It’s almost too awesome a symbol set to just hand to those guys. I wonder what they were really thinking? Click. Reports say Osama Bin Laden was unarmed and one of his wives might have thrown herself in the line of fire. Click. Was Pakistan trying to play it both ways? Click. Who will be the new head honcho of al Quaeda? Nature has a special abhorrence for a vacuum of power and doubtless dozens of the Osama-wannabes that we helped to foster with our relentless (and sometimes ruthless) manhunt will step up and throw their turbans in the ring. First guy to score a palpable hit on the United States gets to play Destro. Right? Click. An unseemly crowd gathers in a public place to celebrate the assassination of a charismatic religious leader. Click. Certain pundits are using the death of Osama Bin Laden to retroactively justify torture, which all right thinking people abhor. (Says she who would totally make you tell her where her kids were if she thought that they were in danger. I’d ask nice first and everything, but when it comes right down to it I’d have to insist.) Click. I don’t like this anymore.
So, like many of us, I officially recused myself from the celebration, I put that faked MLK quote up on my wall, I told everybody that I was over it, and I kept on clicking anyway. I don’t know what’s so damned fascinating about it. It’s not like we really won the war on terror or anything. That’s no more possible than winning the war on drugs is. We’ve removed an ugly tumor, but the malignancy metastasized long ago, and we’re going to need to develop some sort of system-wide solution because a decades long game of whack-a-mole isn’t going to make us any safer. You can’t kill a hydra by cutting off it’s biggest head. (A hydra is one of those monsters that keeps growing new heads and you have to stab it in the heart to do it in.) The wicked witch turns out to have a sister, (surprise surprise) and a couple of wives and a daughter and a few sons and a whole horde of fanatical followers who are ready to lay down their lives in his name. They threw a rock at our hornets nest and now we’ve thrown one back at theirs. Awesome. But if I were president Obama I wouldn’t be sending out for the Mission Accomplished banner quite yet, if you know what I mean.
Look, I’m not saying that we did the wrong thing. Ideology aside, killing innocent civilians has got to be taken off the menu of viable modes of political expression. Everybody needs to know that if they attack random American Citizens (or any group of non-combatants), they will almost certainly be hunted down and killed. And the events of this weekend probably did help drive that point home to some would-be terrorists. Of course, for some folks the threat of death loses much of it’s sting if they can reasonably hope to come out of it smelling like a martyr. Removing Osama from the picture really might still make a difference, though. Lots of movements have faltered when their big leader was taken down. We can all think of some. We can all think of some that caught fire when that happened, too… it’s a calculated risk. But it’s what we had to do. Right? And I guess that I’m glad of it. He was, after all, plotting to kill me if possible, and now I’m alive and he’s dead and that’s how I wanted it to be. No doubt the world is a safer place, or anyway a less concretely scary place without him in it. It’s complicated, though.
The so-called War on Terror is not a cartoon. I have a brother who was a tank commander in Afghanistan and I know what I’m talking about. Not everybody who’s plane blows up floats away to safety on a little white parachute. Main good guys who are totally part of the plot sometimes die and stay dead. And main bad guys do, too. And this time it was a bad guy’s turn to die. Osama Bin Laden was a real bad guy. He was totally merciless, and he was willing to stop at nothing to accomplish his objectives. The United States was rather merciless in it’s persuit of him, too, for that matter, having killed more Afghan civilians than the total number of 9/11 victims and caused many other grave human hardships in the process. We didn’t do it on purpose, of course, (not directly, anyway), and that does matter, but it doesn’t necessarily assuage those people’s grieving loved ones, who are understandably eager for catharsis and revenge, just like we were.
So whoopee! Yes, I guess on some level GI Joe finally DID get Cobra Commander, or the closest thing we’re ever likely to see in our lifetimes. A great price has been paid to accomplish this thing. And those of us who grew up playing that out are naturally going to be inclined to celebrate. And it’s probably good for us to finally let that breath out that we’ve been holding for so damned long. Maybe for some of us it will come out as a defiant shout. For others it will be a long delayed sob for lost loved ones, or a whispered prayer for mercy or for peace. God knows we need some kind of a release from all this tension. But when we’re done gloating over the fallen, or rather, when we get done with the ritual celebrations that we need to heal our traumatized spirits on the symbolic level, we will need to take careful stock of the real situation and reassess what now needs to be done. It’s going to be tough to exchange our specific fears for more nebulous and ill-defined ones, but I’m afraid that our satisfaction might turn out to be short lived if we keep allowing ourselves the luxury of thinking in cartoonish terms. We have to grow up and stop simplifying and softening it for ourselves. It doesn’t make us any more safe. Quite the reverse. The army may have gotten the bad guy, but it’s going to be the politicians and the captains of industry, the farmers, the bankers, the teachers, the artists, and the social workers who win the war on terror, if it’s ever to be won. It’s going to be the Pastors and the Rabbis and the Imams who preach love, tolerance, unity and forgiveness who save the world in the end, if it is indeed to be saved.
We need real heroes now, not action figures, and it’s time we started teaching our kids to know the difference. Cause knowing is half the battle. Right?
(go right ahead, just credit, link and let me know! ruespieler@yahoo)
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