Jul 2011

The curious death of a master signifier

A crowd gathered at the site of the World Trade Center in New York. Many carried American flags or wore t-shirts with patriotic slogans. They pumped their fists in the air. They shouted “U.S.A” and “We’re Number One!” while others sang The Star Spangled Banner. They were in celebratory mood. And they were celebrating death.

Specifically they were celebrating the shooting of an unarmed man in his fifties half a planet away. A group of well-trained killers entered a sovereign nation without permission, swooped down on a house and shot Osama bin Laden in front of his family. They then took photos, scraped some DNA samples and threw the body in the sea. Far away, insulated from all harm, the US president watched the killing unfold on a monitor. And crowds cheered. And of course, this being America, a few of them wondered how they could profit from the death celebration.

As Glenn Greenwald wrote, “It’s been a long time since Americans felt this good and strong about themselves — nothing like putting bullets in someone’s skull and dumping their corpse into an ocean to rejuvenate that can-do American sense of optimism.”

And then the lies began. The dead man had resisted capture. He’d opened fire on his assailants. In the last resort he’d grabbed his own wife and caused her death when he used her as a human shield. A day later, mystifyingly, we were told that none of that had happened. The dead man had been unarmed. He hadn’t used his wife as a human shield. She wasn’t even present when he was shot dead.

I found myself wondering how a man in his fifties, whose health – we’d been told for some time – wasn’t all that great, could have resisted capture so forcefully while unarmed, that a team of elite soldiers was unable to subdue him without shooting him numerous times in the face and chest. Don’t get me wrong, I shed no tears for Osama bin Laden. But nor do I find much to celebrate in the gunning-down of an unarmed man, followed by a series of official lies.

I also found myself wondering why we were being told this at all. Where had the first set of lies come from? And why bother correcting them given that there was no evidence one way or the other beyond the official version? It reminded me of the brutal slaying of Jean Charles de Menezes by police in London. Immediately after the killing a series of lies emerged from the authorities that were so far from the truth that they had to have been deliberately manufactured. They simply couldn’t have been mistakes or someone misinterpreting something. Jean Charles de Menezes had vaulted the ticket barrier in the tube station, we were told. He’d been wearing a bulky coat, we were told. He’d sprinted away from police who had clearly called upon him to stop, we were told.

Except he hadn’t. He’d used his season ticket to walk through the ticket barriers just like a hundred thousand other commuters that day. His clothes had been perfectly appropriate for the weather, and yes while he had sped up — like a hundred thousand other commuters that day — to catch the train that had just pulled into the station, he’d not been sprinting. We were just told lies. And the apparently casual manner in which the authorities appear willing to feed bullshit to the public suggests this is a routine occurrence.

The bizarre testimony of the police officer at the centre of the Ian Tomlinson “unlawful killing” case serves to reinforce this. Everyone had already seen the clear footage of the incident that killed Tomlinson. It was as unambiguous as something like this can possibly be. Yet at the inquest, the police officer whose action had resulted in the death of Tomlinson insisted upon a version of events that completely contradicted the video evidence. It was just weird. And what’s weirder is the fact that he clearly expected the jury, and the wider world, to accept his version above the evidence of their own eyes.

Over the years I’ve found it instructive, whenever I encounter a statement issued by an authority, to imagine that the exact opposite is true. It’s unsettling how often the news makes more sense when you do that. Admittedly it’s a little strange to have the strategy validated so quickly as we did when bin Laden was killed. Within 48 hours an armed man became an unarmed man, and the wife we were told was used as a human shield wasn’t even there.

What does all of this mean?

Well, it means those in power have no respect for those they claim to protect, serve and represent. This isn’t an earth-shattering piece of news. I’m not claiming to be telling you something you’ve not heard before. I’m merely pointing out that despite incontrovertible evidence that this is going on all the time, we appear happy to allow it. Our police and our politicians are constantly lying to us, and we choose to accept it. The psychoanalyst in me can’t help but find the words of Wilhelm Reich springing to mind and wonder whether this is inevitably going to end with the sound of a hundred thousand jackboots marching in unison beneath a fascist flag. The willingness of a population to accept obvious lies eventually gets exploited by someone even less sane than Blair or Cameron or Bush or Obama. And the phrase “it couldn’t happen here” is rarely any protection.

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