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Killing "Geronimo"

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Killing "Geronimo"

In the late 1800s, an Apache warrior named Goyathlay fought against the imperial United States army and the imperial Mexican army, both of which were intent on driving his people off their land and forcing them onto reserves.  What was at stake was the colonization and domination of what is today called “New Mexico”.  Goyathlay took up arms against invading and occupying imperial forces and before he surrendered (he was never captured), the US had to deploy approximately 25% of the army along with thousands of Spanish-Mexican troops.  The colonialists called him “Geronimo”.  A little more than a century later, American officials code-named Osama bin Laden “Geronimo” and embarked on a long mission culminating in his assassination and the disposal of his body, allegedly in accordance with Islamic traditions, at sea.

There’s no shortage of issues here and the burgeoning literature and news articles cover many of them.  What motivates this article is the deliberate choice of the Obama administration to embrace a colonial/imperial identity and through it, mobilize a dangerous sense of patriotism and revenge amongst the American people.

Obama’s victory speech from the early hours of May 2, 2011 show the President positioning himself as the man who defeated bin Laden when President Bush and the Republicans could not.  His 10 minute speech made it sound like he personally pulled the trigger, while getting his underling, Secretary of State Clinton, to remind the world that the killing of bin Laden does not mean the end of US imperial warfare. This performance of brute collective revenge will likely save Obama’s presidency as he seems to have impressed upon his Republican colleagues that he's not a 'wuss'.  The not-fully white, maybe-Muslim, half-American that Obama’s political opponents so love to paint him as, has proven that he too can play ‘Cowboys and Injuns’.  This president, who came to power promising an end to war among other things, is now embracing the “cowboy identity,” flexing muscles in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and soon, possibly, over their on-and-off ally Pakistan as Obama becomes the fully-American Commander-in-Chief in the public’s eye.

The blind patriotism driving celebrations of flags and champagne at Ground Zero and around the world can only be described as the celebration of the extra-judicial assassination of Osama bin Laden.  Resting on a long history of extra-judicial exceptionality, it is easy to forget that the information that led to bin Laden’s killing was likely based on torture and that the timing was orchestrated with rhetoric precision that would make the most sinister of propagandists green with envy.

This can be likened to the nationalism and patriotism that also underscored the colonizing forces fighting the indigenous “insurgents” in what is today called “the Americas.”  What is interesting is not the crude manner in which the American administration conflates indigenous freedom fighters with Islamic militants. Osama and “Geronimo” both play the role of the enemy-Other for the purpose of producing the collective, American “Self:” a strong, virtuous, citizen-cowboy capable of quelling the evil that challenges the civilized nation. What is interesting in naming bin Laden “Geronimo” is the choice of the Obama administration to so wilfully excavate a colonizing, imperial identity  and apply it recklessly in a performative celebration of death.

None can deny the symbolic significance of the “wicked witch” of terror being offered “generosity” by the US military through (allegedly) performing proper Islamic burial rites, though the public cannot see evidence of this. Given the legacy of extra-judicial, racialized and sexualized violence applied with relative impunity to so-called “unlawful enemy combatants” throughout the “War on Terror,” I find it difficult to believe that the reason why Obama will not release photographs of Osama’s assassination is simply because he doesn’t want to “incite violence.”  A more compelling rationalisation may be related to what those soldiers may have done to the body after the killing. 

The message is quite clear:  Imperialism is in vogue.  State sovereignty, international law, and accountability means nothing against the will of the global cowboys to win the war against the global ‘savages’.  The weapons used to “civilize” Goyathlay’s Apaches and the many other indigenous nations involved religious conversion, forced enclosure into reserves, and biological warfare.  Now the weapons of civility also include the radical transformation of states into neoliberal hinterlands, the appointment of “acceptable” political leaders to protect foreign interests, and the disciplining of politics and economics to facilitate “development” through resource and labour exploitation.

Obama has killed Osama, and in embracing the identity of the charging Cowboy leading a global imperial posse, we perhaps see the limits of what the American system of electoral politics is capable of producing.  The man who was supposed to change it all has shown that it is imperial geopolitics as usual.  Geronimo has been neutralized (again), and the legacy of imperialism lives on.

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Bahtman (Ajay Parasram)
Coast Salish Territories
Member since February 2010


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