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DIGITAL EPHEMERA COLLECTION #1: OSAMA BIN LADEN -- ENEMY SYMBOL OF THE ERA

ENEMY SYMBOLS

There's no denying that reality is complex, with its global politics, clashing cultures and ideologies and hundreds of nations. It is human nature for people to simplify reality.

This is coupled with Americans who have been raised on a century of motion pictures and books that have become increasingly cinematic. The plots of mainstream stories invariably have their strongly delineated villains and heroes.

In real life, indvidual men throughout history have become not only real adversary to the USA, but also a symbols of whatever enemy Americans face in a specific timeframe. The individual foe symbols also are linked to stereotypical views of people of the enemy nations. Some stereotypes are eagerly approved, stoked and and glorified, at least during the time of emnity.

In World War I, Americans had Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany to hate. In World War II, they could pick from three enemies -- Germany, Italy and Japan. The most wrath was directed toward Germany and Japan. Adolf Hitler figured prominently in government posters, cartoons and other media, along with brutish, stone-faced Nazis.

Entire nations were stereotyped with the justification that they were the enemy and a menace to the US worldview and position in the world. While individual officers and soldiers (and also later terrorists and mercenaries) carried out the wars, their leaders also icons or symbols of a greater magnitude. People could single out these symbols and derive patriotism and relief from wartime anguish by mocking and loathing them.

On the level of stereotyping the foot soldier or civilian level of enemies, one example is the small, skinny, shifty-eyed, buck-toothed men in round eyeglasses who appeared as the servants of the Japanese emperor in WWII government propaganda materials and private-sector popular culture.

The post-WWII segment of the 20th century is considered an uncertain time. Especially from the 1970s on, the USA's vulnerability was embodied in attacks on American outposts overseas. Americans were accustomed to the idea of invincibility and superiority among the Earth's nations. Aggression by lesser villains -- way smaller than a Hitler -- in regional crises became thorns in the country's side.

The major "bad guy" icons seemed repeatedly to come from the Middle East. There were even more minor villains, such as Slobodan Milosevic in Europe, but they never seemed to grab attention like certain popular Middle Eastern rulers or warriors who loathed American actions of imperialism and self-interest in their region.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led a revolution to end centuries of monarchic rule in Iran and establish an Islamic state in 1979. When his ardent supporters took 50 Americans hostage late that year at the US embassy, he became the target of American rage. The hostage crisis dragged on until 1981, when Ronald Reagan took office.

Eleven years later, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in pursuit of more oil. The fossil-fuel dependent US government turned on the dictator of Iraq in 1991, conveniently forgetting it somewhat aided Hussein in his fight against Iran through most of the 1980s. With Operation Desert Storm dominating the headlines of the first quarter of 1991, Americans had a new bad guy they loved to hate. As the 21st century dawned, Hussein appeared again poised to return as a potent true enemy and enemy icon.

A decade later, with yet another Bush in the White House, Osama bin Laden already was a familiar quantity to people who closely followed the world scene. In the Clinton era, he was blamed in 1996 for bombings of US military housing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; in 1998 for the bombings of American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania; and a suicide boat assault against the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000. In 1996, he issued a fatwa, or decree, for Muslims to kill any Americans in Islam's holy places. In 1998, a second fatwa was to kill all Americans anywhere they are found.

Bin Laden is known to have been raised in a strict, conservative household in Saudi Arabia. His father was a billionaire, and bin Laden never knew any need. However, he also was governed by traditionalism and a form of fundamentalist Islam. For example, bin Laden is known to have studied the works generated by the Wahhabi school, a mystical, strict brand of Islam.

After 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, bin Laden established a group to assist Muslim freedom fighters. He funded the mujahadeen fighting the Soviets of Afghanistan. Bin Laden was worth $250 million, which had grown an inheritance through his father, who died in a helicopter crash in 1967. His father was Mohammed bin Laden, a personal friend of the Saudi royal family and billionaire contractor who contributed greatly to the country's oil production and day-to-day infrastructure. Osama bin Laden

Bin Laden received military and financial assistance from the Central Intelligence Agency and other US offices in the Afghanistan era. But things changed after the Soviets finally left Afghanistan, the Soviet Union broke up, and bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia. It was 1991, and American troops were still in the country after Operation Desert Storm. They were supposed to be temporary, but they remain stationed in the kingdom to this day, providing training and support for the Saudi military and police.

Saudi Arabia is the location of Mekkah (Mecca) Islam's holiest city, and Medina, its second holiest. One of the five "pillars" of the Islamic faith is to make a hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca at least once in life. Medina was the base for the Prophet Muhammad and his followers in the earliest days of the religion. Bin Laden resented the westerners in his homeland, and so close to these cities. One notable quote was to label them the "Christian and Jewish crusaders," an analogy to the Christian crusades against Muslims in the Middle Ages.

Bin Laden was expelled from Saudi Arabia for criticizing the government's accommodation of the United States. By the mid-1990s, bin Laden's Saudi citizenship was stripped, and his assets within the country were frozen.

After leaving Saudi Arabia, bin Laden formed al-Qaeda in the early 1990s and headquartered it in Sudan. After 1996, the network's nerve center was under the Taliban in Afghanistan, who under Islamic philosophy considerd bin Laden a "guest" in their country. His millions went toward funding training camps for warriors who would fight against the enemies of Islam. This was bin Laden's narrow perception of the misunderstood concept of jihad.

This word means "struggle," in Arabic, and not "holy war." However, the perception that it means holy war comes from the idea of the "Greater Jihad (Struggle)" in Islam. In cases where Muslims are persecuted or attacked because of their religion, they are allowed to take up arms and fight back. Bin Laden viewed western nations, particularly the USA, as especially targeting Muslims with opression, war and imperialism as part of advancing their own interests. This is the basis of his own jihad against westerners. Many Muslims will point out, however, that the Qu'ran prohibits the killing of noncombatants if Greater Jihad is necessary.

A second point is, bin Laden overtly uses a context of a relgious war, with Muslims fighting Jewish and Christian enemies and infidels. Recruits are told they can become martyrs and earn an immediate place in heaven by attacking and killing the perceived infidels, thus also advancing Islam.

Third, bin Laden's philosophy is the idea of pan-Islamicism, or the entire region under a rule of conservative Islam with an interpretation of the Qu'ran that is faithful to the writings that founding Prophet Muhammad received from Allah (God).

BIN LADEN EPHEMERA

The "homegrown" graphic ephemera that attacked Osama bin Laden, the enemy symbol of the September 2001 terrorist atrocities against Americans, reflect their patriotism; their long-existing, loud desire to fight back and avenge the dead and maimed; and finally, some ignorance of the Middle East.

Much of the ephemera is humorous: in order to make the enemy symbol appealing, he must be (1) offensive; (2) a buffoon and the butt of jokes; and (3) thoroughly incompetent and easy to defeat.

In examining the still and video satires of bin Laden, we find that some Americans painted him as:

On the point of stupidity, bin Laden probably is far from it. He showed ingenuity and a high degree of planning and strategy skills in establishing al-Qaeda. Being the son of a billionaire, he studied at a good university in Jedda, Saudi Arabia, majoring in business, and economics. He also was familiar with engineering through his employment with the family's Bin Laden Group. Though, from the American standpoint, he was very stupid to attack a superpower.

The militaristic perception is true, because of his pursuit of jihad. His 1998 fatwa, from an American perspective, is barbaric and savage.

As for hateful, the fact that he lost his citizenship and was booted from Saudi Arabia prove this to be true. He does not like anything that is western/American/Christian/Jewish that threatens Islamic solidarity.

The execution of bin Laden's jihad has killed thousands of Americans and allies, so they have reason to hate him and desire revenge on him and his foot soldiers and fellow terrorist groups or sympathetic governments. And it was justification of George W. Bush's "War on Terrorism" to eliminate enemies of American interests, philosophies and way of life.

I cannot comment on bin Laden's hygienic habits; who knows how often you can bathe or change clothes if you're a fugitive hiding in a cave? However, ugliness is in the eye of the beholder. A turban and long beard are unattractive to some people, or so ... foreign to some.

The accusations of pedophilia and bestiality seem to have been added to build up his evil reputation. Bin Laden did marry a 14-year-old distant cousin in the late 1970s, and is believed to have three wives. But polygamy and marrying in adolescence are acceptable within the context of his own culture. Obviously, these things are repugnant to some Americans who do not fully understand that culture or consider it counter to their own values and beliefs, whether secular, religious or both.

STEREOTYPING

Some of the graphic ephemera also represent the simplistic views and stereotyping some Americans display about unfamiliar parts of the world. All Middle Easterners are "Arabs"; have beards; wear turbans or kaffiyehs (head scarves) and robes; ride camels and herd goats; and some have oil rigs in their backyards. All women are submissive and heavily veiled, and men have lots of wives or harems.

There is some truth, even in stereotypes. Some men do wear robes and turbans, but many don western clothing. Some women are required to practice varying degrees of hijab, or covering the body and head in public. Some Middle Eastern residents own camels and herds of goats, and some men have several wives. But not all fit into the stereotypes!

The degree of liberation for women in Islamic countries varies with their interpretation of the religion and its holy book, the Qu'ran. Turkey is considered fairly progressive for Islamic women. In contrast, the Taliban was well known for demanding that when women went out in public, they had to wear the ankle-length burqa and strive not to make a single sound. And interpretations vary not just on the national, but regional level, as well.

Not all persons are Arabs -- the Iranians are Persian, and some Kurds live in northern Iraq. Afghanistan itself has over 30 ethnic groups, including the Pashtuns, Uzbecks and Tajiks; the residents sometimes hated the foreign Arab members of the ruling Taliban, not only because of repressions, but because they were not the same ethnically or culturally.

Such stereotyping comes mainly from lack of information on the Middle East; a disinterest in learning about its cultures; and decades of inaccurate portrayals of persons from the region in motion pictures.

"CROSS POLLINATION" AND HOMAGE

Some of the bin Laden ephemera borrow from, and pay tribute to, other pop culture. This cross-pollination from one pop culture character, program, book or other item was common in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Pop culture was sacred to some of the baby boomers (born 1946-64). It was not uncommon to reference familiar aspects in its newest vehicles of expression, as well as retreads of the old. In some cases, these allusions were viewed as "hip" or clever, allowing viewers to share in the joke or reference.

In one 9-11 graphic, bin Laden is a Mr. Potato Head toy, with detachable eyes, beard, and other parts, and also easily blown up. An additional line of text says this is a toy that GI Joe (a Hasbro toy line of soldiers and equipment dating to the 1960s) would love. In another, bin Laden's head has been digitally placed upon Mike Myers' body to become a Middle Eastern Dr. Evil of the Austin Powers movies. Verne Troyer, as sidekick Mini-Me, now has a Taliban leader's head. In a third grpahic, a popular late 1990s MasterCard ad campaign is mimicked with a clear aim for shooting bin Laden called "priceless."

CRUDENESS

Lewd or explicit humor in late 20th and early 21st century may be lamented by those who believe the United States' moral fabric is unraveling, but it cannot be ignored or just slammed. It is part of the culture and though offensive to some, is an embodiment of the growing frankness in which Americans discuss things and how they shape the humor of their time and react to it. Swearing and sexual references were more acceptable in many circles in these time periods. For example, the word "ass," as in buttocks, is still a swear word, but now it started to be used widely in the 1990s in what used to be called the "family hour" of 8 to 9 p.m. on TV, and even in syndicated programming before it.

Because it was "open season" on bin Laden -- the enemy, both true and symbolic -- crudeness and profanity were okay in mockery of him. So he is called "asshole" and portrayed as an openly deviant man who weds a camel. Some of the emphemera could be rated "R" or even "X." One graphic put his head on a nude body and showed him getting reamed up the anus with the Empire State Building. The caption: "So, you like skyscrapers, huh, bitch?" In still another, "Bin Laden Without His Turban," the top of his head has been digitally replaced with a penis top, the implication that he is a "dickhead." A Macromedia Shockwave Flash movie also shows bin Laden sodomizing George W. Bush, complete with grunting sounds.

CONCLUSION

In examining the bin Laden emphemera, keep in mind the inflamed, emotional mood upon the United States in the last quarter of 2001. This was a country assaulted and wounded, struggling with a rush of feelings, including revenge and pugnacity.

This was a nation that was at war less than a month after the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, with the majority approving of President Bush's leadership and decision to fight. The enemy attacked us in our own cities, Americans would point out to you. Though thousands would die during the intense bombing of Afghanistan, including civilians, some citizens rationalized it as being one of the normal outcomes of war. They might have reminded you that they struck us first and murdered 3,000-odd victims, most of whom were noncombatants and civilians.

There is no surprise in comparing the conversion from complacency to the patriotism, jingoism and war hawk stance of 9-11 to the same response after Pearl Harbor in 1941. The obvious difference is that the 2001 enemy was an ideological-religious group spread across numerous countries, as opposed to one nation. You will also see similar themes in the collections of patriotic and remembrance graphics and text on this Web site.

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