Like, I suspect, many of you, I was online last night when news of Osama bin Laden's death started flying across my screen. Rumors floating around on Twitter first, followed by confirmation on CNN and eventually the President Barack Obama's formal announcement. Also like many of you, my Tweet stream then got filled with short recaps, quips about Obama's success relative to G.W. Bush and general shouts of jubilation and/or patriotism. The same thing happened on Facebook.
Look at that Savage Dragon cover at the right. It's from a couple years ago, and is clearly meant to evoke the imagery from the first issue of Captain America Comics #1 where Cap makes his publication debut by whacking Adolf Hitler on the jaw. A full year before the U.S. entered World War II.The analogy is apt in that bin Laden has been viewed by Americans in much the same way that Hitler was. The idea of Hitler (and bin Laden) is a more powerful image than the actual individual. That both Hitler and bin Laden had so little control within U.S. media and propaganda circles meant that they weren't portrayed as simple bad guys but as evil incarnate. The ultimate comic book villain with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.
Which isn't to say that I support anything they did. I'm just saying that our media hype machine was so forceful that there was nothing either of them did that wasn't portrayed as absolute evil. There's scarcely an attempt to even understand what their thinking was; they did what they did because they were evil. Two-dimensional villains who committed abominable acts for their own sake. Who or what they actually were is irrelevant; they were the living embodiment of everything bad in the universe as far as we're concerned.
For those of you old enough to have lived through and remember the Cold War, the United States' biggest enemy was the Soviet Union. Why? They were Communists and our government told us that they were bad and trying to take over our country. Not that there was an actual plot or anything, but they were sold to us as a dangerous boogyman that we needed to be fearful of. It was an image that was so engrained in our collective psyche that our pop culture of the time is littered with references to the Soviets being bad guys. Just within comics' sphere, we've got everything from Superman IV to American Flagg! to all the Soviet Super-Soldiers appearances throughout Marvel's entire comics line.
Most Americans have never been to the U.S.S.R. or Russia. Most haven't even met someone from there. Collectively, we relied on the government and our culture at large to tell us who were our enemies. That gave us something to fight against. Nazis were an easy go-to villain in the 1940s because everyone hated them, and Russians made for a decent go-to villain during the Cold War for the same reason. The hatred was a little less intense, of course, since they weren't, you know, slaughtering whole cities full of people, but "Better Dead than Red!" was a common-enough battle cry that you could pretty easily rally Americans behind.
Such is the role bin Laden has played in recent years. He's been America's Bad GuyTM despite no one having actually seen him for the better part of a decade. He's a man so inherently evil that he even didn't deserve a trial (much less a fair one) in the same way Saddam Hussein did. He's a man so inherently evil that the government didn't even bother to TRY to claim that he took his own life rather than potentially get captured by Americans. He's a man so inherently evil that the only place he could hide would be a remote cave in the mountains.
Again, I don't condone anything bin Laden said or did. I don't know what effects his death will have on al-Qaida. But I do know that this isn't a comic book villain we're talking about. Which, on the plus side, means he won't be advocating America's destruction any longer but, on the down side, means that there will almost certainly be consequences of some sort. The "Mission Accomplished" banner was premature in 2003, and I think it's be premature in 2011.
Just something to think about if/when you find yourself in a crowd of people chanting, "USA! USA! USA!"