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Symbols, from bin Laden to the royal weddingBY: Maria Thompson Corley 05.06.2011
Osama bin Laden’s death. The royal wedding. It seems there’s been so much to celebrate lately. Yet what did these symbolic feel-good events actually accomplish?
Let them eat symbols!MARIA THOMPSON CORLEY
Osama bin Laden’s death. The royal wedding. Humans do love symbols, don’t we? They’re shorthand, and there’s no need to think about them too much.
Bin Laden is the symbol for evil, so eliminating him symbolizes good triumphing over evil. The royal wedding was the definition of happily ever after. Then again, “Charles and Diana” was supposed to be a fairy tale, too. And maybe it was— the Grimms wrote plenty like theirs.
It seems there’s been so much to celebrate lately. Yet what was actually accomplished to give these events so much weight?
Sense of nationhood
If the British need symbols to maintain their sense of nationhood, don’t they already have plenty of statues, some of which celebrate people who actually accomplished something during their lives? How much attention do you suppose people will pay to William and Kate once the Brits conclude that royalty is no longer worth the public expense?
Of course, when it comes to public expense, the royal wedding pales beside the war on terror. But the gazillions spent to find and kill bin Laden at least yielded more than symbolic value: a treasure trove of computer files at his headquarters. But those ballpark chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A” had nothing to do with that.
Those computer disks
The truth is, bin Laden wasn’t going to live forever anyway, and he was hardly the only evil genius in Al Qaeda’s organization. (The Yemeni branch, by all reports, was only very loosely allied with bin Laden.) Finding and eliminating bin Laden was a mission accomplished, yes, but those computer files will yield much greater value, even if they’re not as symbolically dramatic as putting a bullet in a bad guy’s brain.
Many relatives of 9/11 victims claim to feel a sense of closure with bin Laden’s death. I would never deny them the healing they seek, but the “closure” claim does bear a heavy whiff of wishful thinking. As I write, the government is already talking about its next mission— to track down and kill the next in line. And on and on. Now we’re told that this latest victory in the war on terror may require the U.S. to leave troops in Afghanistan until 2014.
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