Tuesday, May 10, 2011

At Sea

Sit still, and hear the last of our sea-sorrow.

(The Tempest)

I was off-planet when they killed bin Laden. It was a long flight, granted, yet it seemed extraordinary to me that by the time I landed and caught up with the news, the slain al Qaeda leader had already been buried at sea. I had missed the developing story, just like on 9/11 when, due to the time difference, my partner and I woke up to a terse, horrifying bulletin once everything had already happened.

On this occasion, the news seemed to have been packaged as conspiracy theory in the making: a swift killing followed by an even swifter disposal of the body. Details already shrouded in the reticence and obfuscation of the secret-keepers seemed to overlap and contradict one another. Was bin Laden armed? Did he struggle or return fire? First, yes, then, no. Obama had referred repeatedly in his statement to the nation to his directive that bin Laden should be 'captured or killed'. It seemed hard to credit the thought that the former option had seriously been entertained. More so when it emerged that defence secretary Gates' proposal for the operation was to rain down a few dozen 2,000-pound bombs on the compound, thus 'bringing to justice' not only anybody who might be living with bin Laden, but his neighbours as well.

That the administration saw it fit to release this detail of the preparations speaks volumes of the level of acceptance not only of summary state executions, but of collateral civilian deaths as well. However I am intrigued particularly by the manner in which bin Laden's body was disposed of, and what it says about the culture in which this event took place.

According to the most credited timeline, as little as nine hours elapsed from the moment the US Navy Seals entered bin Laden's compound and the time when his body was washed aboard the USS Carl Vinson in preparation for its burial at sea. In the mean time, depending on which wording of the official accounts you follow, either the American authorities unsuccessfully shopped the body around to a series of Muslim countries, or they came to the conclusion that such efforts would have been in vain. The latter explanation would indicate that the burial arrangements were planned in advance, which seems rather more plausible to me than the alternative. But that there is a narrative out there about officials scrambling to find a taker for the corpse and resolving to jettison it from an aircraft carrier is not altogether insignificant, for it speaks of a panic which undercuts the clinical precision of the operation and the moral certainty of its architects.

The need for such a speedy burial at sea was supposedly two-fold: to adhere to the Islamic custom according to which the deceased must be buried within 24 hours of the time of death; and to avoid the burial place becoming a shrine for the supporters of bin Laden and his ideas. The administration's insistence that everything was done according to Islamic tradition (whatever that might mean – it seems as vague a concept to me as 'Christian tradition') has been disputed, and some commentators have pointed out that an unmarked grave, as well as being consistent with custom, would have done the trick, shrine-wise. However there is at least one notable historical precedent here. Benito Mussolini was buried in secret in plot 384 of the Cimitero Maggiore in Milan following his summary execution and public display in April of 1945, but news soon spread and the plot did indeed become a meeting place for nostalgics of the regime, until in 1946 the body was stolen by three members of the neonate Fascist Democratic Party. The thieves eluded capture for two weeks, during which time the dictator's remains acquired in the popular press the name of il salmone, a play on 'big corpse' and 'salmon'. Finally il salmone was returned to the family, who buried it in Mussolini's birthplace of Predappio, nowadays a tourist destination in which the sale of fascist-themed souvenirs wasn't banned until 2009.

The vicissitudes of Hitler's body are also instructive. Hastily and not altogether successfully cremated by his own men so that they wouldn't become a trophy for the Soviets, the Fuhrer's remains were seized and repeatedly exhumed and interred by SMERSH before the eventual burial in an unmarked grave in Magdeburg. In 1970, they were exhumed again, along with those of Göbbels and his family, then thoroughly crushed and scattered in the Biederitz river, while a fragment of his skull, whose authenticity has been repeatedly questioned, was displayed in 2000 at the Federal Archives in Moscow for the benefit of the tourist/voyeur. Of interest for today's proceedings is also the fate of Göring et al., meaning the nine other high officers of the Nazi regime hanged at Nuremberg whose ashes, as Bill Palmer reminded us last week, were scattered in the Conwentzbach river, a tributary of the Elbe, under the authority of the Allied prosecutors.

These river rituals were salmon-proof. They were designed to remove all traces of form and materiality, to erase the concrete presence of those men from history in a manner that bore echoes of the Final Solution itself.

Post-war Europe was built also on the scattering of those ashes. It was the manner of our unbecoming: we exorcised the symbols as well as the remains of our monsters. However I think we would do well to interrogate this magical thinking – did we really think that the waters of the Biederitz and the Conwentzbach could dilute the essence of the Nazis, of Nazism? – and the extent in which it lives on in this latest action, casting upon it a shadow not of immorality, but of unreason.

Water and the sea have a long and powerfully symbolic association with memory and death in Western culture. It was the river Lethe that made the spirits of the dead forgetful in their journey into Hades, and washed away the sins of the residents of Purgatory in Dante's Christian reinvention. It was the Atlantic that drowned Ulysses and his crew as they set forth in search of virtue and knowledge, the sea that lapped at Keats' pebbled shore of memory. As Jean Delumeau reports in his seminal study of fear in Western culture, for some fifteen centuries a belief was held in Europe that the souls of those who died at sea would be condemned to wander until the Church intervened with the appropriate rituals. These included, as late as the mid-Twentieth century, the placing in the house of the deceased of a small cross made of wax and covered with a white cloth, as well as other simulacra designed to replace the body, the shroud, the coffin and the tomb. And of course the cradle of the West, the Mediterranean, is today, in the words of Nichi Vendola, the non metaphoric 'liquid grave' of the over 16,000 largely unnamed migrants who failed to safely reach the shores of Empire.

And so when we say that we buried Osama bin Laden at sea in a manner that was respectful of his culture, we should bear in mind those aspects of ours: the complex layers of understanding of what happens after we die and how our remains and the manners of their disposal are seen to embody our continued social existence, the memory of us. In their carefully planned operation, which was not entirely devoid of ritual, the American forces determined that bin Laden should be buried at sea and the area itself should be kept secret, as if he was a monster (our monster) that needed to be killed twice in order to properly erase his memory and prevent his return.

We gave him an unmarked watery grave: just as another boatload of refugees from another war against a former friend of the West narrowly escaped theirs.