Wednesday, May 4, 2011

History and America's Most Wanted

Randall Stephens

"The United States adheres to its own theory of history," writes Paul Berman in the New Republic. He weighs in on the country's peculiar view of the past and American ideas of progress and looks at the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound and the larger meaning of his death. History, in the view of many citizens, has a clear direction, an identifieable purpose. "In our own liberal and democratic theory of history," says Berman, "doctrines like Al Qaeda’s are doomed to defeat. This is because, in our estimation, the mad and fantastical doctrine about resurrecting an ancient caliphate is comparable to other such doctrines that we have encountered during the last century—e.g., the doctrine about resurrecting the Roman Reich in an Aryan version, or the doctrine about resurrecting the ancient Russian peasant communes in the form of a proletarian Soviet civilization." Here's the sort of inevitability that historians find so out of whack.

"But let us also recognize that, beyond the details of an efficient operation," Berman remarks, "the symbolism is hard to mistake."

And, since the present war is ultimately a war of ideas, let us not fail to recognize that symbolism is ultimately crucial. The symbolism of this present raid says: Relentlessness expresses history. History is not on bin Laden’s side. History is on the side of democracy and freedom. History will not be deterred. Yes, we should ask ourselves: Does it make sense to speak about abstractions like “history”? Does the relentlessness of a manhunt contain any deeper meanings at all? There is an answer to these questions. The abstractions express a meaning if we choose to endow them with meaning. Ten years of man-hunting suggest that we have chosen to do so.>>>

What is the larger meaning of bin Laden's demise? How will it shape America's relation with the world? After shouts of "USA, USA, USA" have died down and revelers have put away their gigantic flags, will we see what the larger significance or symbolism of his death is? Perhaps it will take many years for the implications to play out.

In the meantime it might be interesting to consider other "most wanted" figures who have plagued the government and struck fear in the hearts of citizens. (Caveat: I don't intend any sort of moral equivalency with bin Laden.) The list below could include many more, but here's a partial who's who:

* Geronimo, mid to late 19th century

* Billy the Kid, 1860s-1880

* Frank and Jesse James, late 19th century

* Pancho Villa, nineteen-teens

* John Dillinger, 1930s

* Al Capone, 1920s-1930s

* Ted Kaczynski, 1970s-1990s

* Timothy McVeigh, 1990s

* Mohammed Farah Aidid, 1990s

* Eric Robert Rudolph, 1990s-2000s

Take Pancho Villa. The Mexican revolutionary and guerilla fighter brought Americans to new heights of anxiety. This feared bandit killed 34 Americans in 1916 and became, for Americans at least, one of the most reviled figures of the day. Villa--a liberator in the eyes of many of his countrymen--was thought to be a murderous blackguard, a villainous butcher, a subhuman thug. President Woodrow Wilson sent General John J. Pershing to hunt down Villa in Mexico. But, because of the outlaw's widespread support and the unfamiliar, hostile terrain, Pershing failed.

In 1916 the Atlanta Constitution excitedly reported what proved to be a false account of Villa's death: "Villa's body has been dug up out of a two weeks' old grave by Carlos Carranza, nephew of General Carranza" (April 17). He "Died in Agony" so went the report. The writer, at the end of the piece, did mention that some doubted the claims.

Villa did finally meet his end in 1923. He had received a pardon and was retired to a ranch. Villa, said Will Rogers in what passed for humor back then, died of Mexican natural causes. He was shot in the back. Americans let their rage melt into laughter.

Historians now can read from the Villa trouble something about American culture and diplomacy in the Wilson years. What did he symbolize? What did his menacing presence on the U.S. southern border mean for Americans? For that matter, what have so many other criminals, arch-villains, terrorists, and "blackguards" at home and abroad meant to Americans over the decades, centuries?


Lisa Clark Diller said...

Without undermining the profound cultural and historical importance of this timely topic, is there any usefulness in seeing this obsession with Supervillains as partly plain old good entertainment? Several times since the announcement that bin Laden has been found, I've heard people say "this is going to make a great movie." The whole idea of a man-hunt lends itself to this, it seems.

Maybe it is because we have such hard time dealing with abstract ideas. In teaching, it is much easier to attach an idea/ideology to a specific person rather than to teach it in theory. Nothing beats a good narrative. And nothing makes a good narrative like a good villain.

Just a more superficial response to this. Thanks for the reminder that, when it comes to society's most wanted, bin Laden has company.

Randall said...

I think your right. There is a good deal of infotainment swirling around all of this.