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The Osama persona

After September 11, Osama bin Laden's turban, his beard and his `costume' have all come to signify a hated image, not an individual, says AMRIT SRINIVASAN.

THE technology involved in the September 11 attacks on the United States was not very sophisticated. The instruments used — the human body, some knives and fuel-filled civilian planes — achieved their purpose through substitution and pretence, elemental ploys in any ordinary childhood game of make-believe. The attackers used plastic knives to overcome their enemies and simulated flying before actually doing so, in their collision course with history. Even their identity, in strictly legal terms, remains speculation because there are no eyewitnesses to testify to a recognisable body, or body-part, belonging to them. Indeed, there are no bodies or body-parts of even the victims remaining. All of us who survived are eyewitnesses of a very different kind — TV audiences/couch potatoes — all watching reality bite on the screen.

For the U.S. and its allies, however, despite the inconclusive evidence, the enemy has already been given a face. The angry words of Mr. Jeremy Greenstock, British Ambassador to the Security Council, shortly after September 11, presume this massive, now official, consensus: ``... for most of the time, if something looks like a terrorist and makes noise like a terrorist, it is a terrorist'' (The Hindu, September 30). The 19 hijackers may be dead but military action in Afghanistan continues to be justified to the world as the flushing out of a living enemy — Osama bin Laden. Paradoxically, however, it is only digitised images of the latter aired on alien networks that provide proof, if one can call it that, of the physical ``reality'' of the object of revenge.

Unlike Saddam Hussein or Ayatollah Khomeini before him, Osama bin Laden begins his political career in the world's consciousness predominantly, if not solely, as an image. An image incidentally which has nothing in common with the released file photographs of the hijackers, which are uniformly clean-shaven and without a turban. Saddam's loyal doubles and prototypes we should remember, actually took assassin's bullets intended for their leader. Today, Osama's virtual doubles (proliferating on every TV/ computer screen, newspaper, magazine and billboard of the world) remain powerfully whole, coercing consumers around the world into dangerously opposed camps — those who view him as an object of revulsion and those who view him as the very incarnation of religious hope and freedom. To bridge this divide is going to be very difficult, not least because its source is literally indestructible — an image residing everywhere and no-where, lodged somewhere in the interstices of the human mind and computer code. Osama is in sanctuary not merely in a purported cave provided by Taliban- occupied Afghanistan but also in the vast infinitude of cyberspace.

In the melting pot ideology of the U.S., to not look like others has always been suspect and calls forth racial prejudice of varying but basically simple and polarised kinds, wherein the world is divided into crude oppositions of Whites versus non-Whites or Browns versus Blacks. To this diffuse prejudice, which stereotypically cannot make out the difference between one Asian and another, has now been added a dangerous specificity.

Osama bin Laden ... a sanctuary under seige in Afghanistan.

After September 11, terrorism wears a turban and a beard. Balbir Singh Sodhi in Phoenix, looked not exactly, but adequately, like Osama to deserve a vengeful ``cowboy's'' fatal bullet.

The spectre of a ``mistaken'' and not merely racial/communal identity is being forced upon the world's expatriate Indians. After September 11, all manner of Osama ``look-alikes'' face the threat of an angry world public's retaliatory action. Osama's turban, his beard and ``costume'' have come today to signify a hated persona, not a person. The brisk production now of Osama masks for Halloween may or may not permit the ``safe'' playing out of a dangerous possibility for the U.S.'s Asian population. Certainly, the numbers under threat remain small, but the potential of violence is large enough to force the image industry into an historic redundancy. For the first time in living memory, Hollywood has agreed to wear a burqa and foresworn the fictional representation of the September 11 violence, or anything even remotely resembling it, as a mark of its civic responsibility. This should be taken very seriously indeed, for if anyone it is the dream industry which knows the explosive and exponential power of the virtual over the real in these image-saturated times.

The writer is a sociologist teaching in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Delhi.

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