After air, food, water and perhaps companionship, I would say that our greatest need is for stories. We tell our children stories at bedtime, while those of us who are married or in relationships have our own stories of how we met up. The villages, towns or cities of our birth have stories about how they came into being, as do the constituent counties, the monuments in those counties and ultimately, the countries or nations themselves.
On an international or global scale, there exist certain holy books whose adherents draw guidance and inspiration from the stories they contain. Other stories transcend race, religion and borders, because Mankind has always been mesmerised by stories such as Homer’s Odyssey, the Epic of Gilgamesh and the One Thousand And One Nights, to name just a few, while I’m certain that this fascination will never fade.
In addition, the leaders of our nations each have stories about how they rose to power. Sometimes, these are straightforward, but on other occasions, leaders put together elaborate myths in order to bolster their standing or otherwise captivate an audience. Kim Jong-il, for example, the leader of North Korea, was born in Siberia, but official accounts perpetuate the myth that he was born in a log cabin at his father’s guerilla base on North Korea’s highest mountain, an event that was reportedly marked by a double rainbow and a bright star in the sky.
Countless heroes from antiquity were described as having unusual births, so these strange circumstances seem to be a prerequisite for fame and standing. In William Shakespeare’s play Henry IV Part 1, the Welsh hero Owen Glendower declares:
“……At my nativity
The front of heaven was full of fiery shapes,
Of burning cressets; and at my birth
The frame and huge foundation of the earth
Shaked like a coward.”
All this and more allowed Glendower to announce “I am not in the roll of common men.” I’m not aware that there was anything at all unusual about the birth of Osama bin Laden, but I believe that both his detractors and supporters would agree on one thing – he was not in the roll of common men. Human history has seen many revolutionaries, conquerors and other warlords, including many notable tyrants in the twentieth century, but in terms of the grip on our collective imaginations, the West hasn’t been mesmerised by such a single figure since the days of Attila the Hun.
In the fifth century AD, Attila and his hordes emerged from the depths of Asia to bring terror to the West. The sheer dread he inspired and the ferocity of his onslaughts earned him the title of “Flagellum Dei” or “The Scourge of God”. Seven centuries or so before Attila appeared, the Roman empire was attacked by the Carthaginian general Hannibal, who made such a lasting impact that Roman mothers would frighten their children at bedtime by whispering “Hannibal ad portas!” or “Hannibal’s at the gates!” centuries after this man took his own life, so as to “relieve the Romans from the anxiety they have so long experienced.”
Osama bin Laden’s reputation was such that it was absolutely inevitable that his death, however and wherever it happened, would be a major event. I’m aware that there are animated debates about the legality, morality and even the reality of his death, but for the purpose of this piece, these matters do not concern me. Instead, I’ve been watching and listening with growing astonishment to the accounts of the circumstances of his death as related by spokesmen at the White House, because it seems to me that things have gone badly wrong somewhere along the line. To explain precisely why, allow me to begin by writing something of the power of mythology and I shall begin at home, here in Britain.
Britain is blessed with a wealth of history, mythology, legends and other tales. Many of these concern our opposition to invaders, beginning with Boadicea’s revolt against the Romans almost 2,000 years ago. There are later accounts of resistance against Saxons, Jutes, Angles, Danes, Norsemen, Vikings and Normans, with more recent stories of our opposition to Napoleon and Hitler, while the concept of heroic resistance is summed up in the lines “Men of Harlech, march to glory, this will ever be your story“.
In addition to all the folklore about monsters, giants and other plagues, there’s another body of mythology that has largely shaped our national character, or the way in which we perceive such matters. The most influential characters in British ‘mythology’ are King Arthur, Robin Hood and James Bond, all of whom share the virtues of treating their enemies in a noble, courteous fashion and killing only as a last resort, often using wit, ingenuity and subterfuge instead of violence. I hasten to add that this is not an original observation of mine, but one made by the revered social-anthropologist Elliot Leyton in his 2002 study of British murderers entitled Men of Blood.
By way of contrast, Professor Leyton went on to point out that the most influential mythology in America is that of How The West Was Won, or the myth of the Wild West gunslinger who observed two rules – never shoot a man in the back and never shoot an unarmed man. With this last stricture in mind, it seems very odd that the White House spokesmen should have stated that Osama bin Laden was unarmed when he was killed, because it goes against not only an ingrained American ethos, but one observed in most other countries as well.
In case this sounds like a subtle sneering attack on our American cousins for being ‘cowboys’ (which it isn’t), I should point out that references to the Wild West have appeared in numerous official reports that I’ve seen. This BBC feature on Operation Geronimo goes into detail about the echoes of the Wild West in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, this report on how he was tracked down contains similar mentions, and this study by the BBC’s North American editor Mark Mardell examines the notion of ‘frontier justice’ and the cultural differences between Britain and America. I would not be surprised if there were numerous others, but these will serve more than adequately as examples of the vocabulary and imagery of the Wild West playing a prominent role in official proceedings.
Other details and contradictions in the official account(s) have, as Mark Mardell pointed out, “diminished the glow of success that has surrounded all those involved in the operation” as far as some are concerned. That this should have happened at all is very strange, not least because America managed to transform the military fiasco of the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 into the glorious account of Custer’s Last Stand. However, that achievement was long ago eclipsed by the genius at story telling that thousands of men and women in America have displayed over the last century or so, and I refer of course to the magic of Hollywood.
For something like a century, Hollywood has produced stories that have captivated and enthralled the world, to such an extent that the faces of some actors and actresses are imprinted upon our minds as the real people who took part in certain events. Many people will remember the Apollo 13 mission that came so close to disaster in 1970, for instance, but few would be able to recognise the astronaut Jim Lovell, as he’s been effectively replaced in our memories by Tom Hanks. While none of us were around in 70 BC, Spartacus will nonetheless always have the face of Kirk Douglas and I could readily provide a hundred more examples of how Hollywood has effectively altered our perceptions of reality.
The real power behind the throne, however, lies in the minds of the scriptwriters, or the men and women who actually fashion these memorable stories. I once had the privilege of meeting and learning from one such person, Michael Hauge; to listen to him speak about the skills involved in storytelling was truly a “watcher of the skies” moment for me, one I’ve not forgotten, but this gifted and insightful man is not the only skilled practitioner of his craft.
As I understand it, the American intelligence agencies had sufficient warning of Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts to enable them to recreate a full-scale replica of the compound, where the Special Forces could practise their mission.
With far less notice – in fact, just a few minutes would have been ample – any professional storyteller would have been able to ‘construct a narrative’ of events for the night of May 2nd that would largely satisfy a global audience, regardless of any later and possibly contradictory information coming to light. The only details they would have needed to have known beforehand would have been that soldiers were entering a building in an attempt to capture a man who was known to be dangerous; any other details would merely add colour and extra credibility to the account.
My guess is that any writer who had been asked to help would have immediately chosen as their the template the legend of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth, possibly the best-known of all the related stories of heroes entering a dark underworld or maze in an attempt to slay the monster within, and thereby free all Mankind. This myth has enthralled us all for millennia, as have its subsequent Hollywood incarnations in the form of Alien, the Terminator, Silence of the Lambs and Apocalypse Now.
The following statement, based on the myth of the Labyrinth, can only now ever be hypothetical, but let’s see if it squares with what are known of the facts of the events of May 2nd and if it provides a more satisfactory account than the versions that have been related to us thus far:
“Last night, a detachment of our Special Forces entered a complex in a far-flung, foreign land. Our intelligence had told us that this compound was the lair of Osama bin Laden, but we could not be certain that he was there, nor could our forces be entirely sure of what awaited them in the darkness, amidst the tunnels and corridors; they were in absolutely no doubt, however, that their mission was an extremely dangerous and hazardous one. Over the course of 40 – 45 minutes, our men gradually fought their way inside, all the while coming under a ferocious and sustained attack. Remember that this attempt to capture the world’s most wanted man was carried out in darkness, on a night with no moon. As our men battled their way into the heart of this forbidding compound, they were wearing night-vision goggles, they were being fired upon, they were in a strange and hostile environment, there was deafening noise from explosions, gunshots and the helicopters waiting to evacuate them, and there was smoke and sporadic flashes of light, not to mention shouts and fleeting shadows. At long last, one of our Special Forces found himself at the heart of this complex, in a second storey room, confronting an enemy he believed to be Osama bin Laden himself. In the smoke and the darkness and the chaos, this figure lunged for a weapon, whereupon he was shot dead, then taken away for positive identification. We will add further information as and when more details become clear to us.”
To be brutally pragmatic about it, why let the facts get in the way of a good story? The death of Osama bin Laden, however, is not just a ‘good story’, because the spectre of this man haunted the imagination of the West for a decade, during which time he effectively came to personify an apocalyptic confrontation between civilisations. His spectre needed laying to rest with a story of equal magnitude and potency.
An identical principle applies to the story of the handsome prince who marries in a fairytale wedding, that goes like a dream. Once this concept has been announced and disseminated, then minor details like witches on the guest list become incidental to the established story, instead of grabbing the headlines for themselves and commanding the unwelcome attention of a growing army of malcontents.
In the original story of the Labyrinth, Theseus gained access to this fearsome structure and slew the monster inside, thus ending a blight that had been laid upon Athens that entailed the city’s finest young men and women being killed by the Minotaur. The hero’s act of entering the deadly maze, slaying the monster and thereby freeing the civilised world from a deathly curse is the central act of the whole story. We later learn that Theseus abandoned Ariadne, the princess who helped him on his heroic enterprise, while he also forgets to hoist a white sail upon his return home, leading to his father killing himself in despair, but none of this detracts from his towering achievement. The myth simply wouldn’t possess any power if it came to us in the form of disjointed fragments or contradictory ancient Greek press releases.
None of us will ever know exactly what happened on the night of May 2nd in Abbottabad, but my earlier “announcement” (above) tallies pretty closely with the official line thus far, while it also allows for a great deal of additional information to be added afterwards, without significantly conflicting with the essential theme of what happened, once it had been firmly established in the first place that this was a re-run of the Minotaur myth. Professor Lyall Watson once defined reality as “an idea that has gained universal acceptance”, so because we’re all culturally primed to stand in awe of something that fits the parameters of a myth, we would have immediately embraced a tale of heroes entering a dark and dangerous otherworld; any other subsequent details would have added colour to the story, instead of detracting from it.
If you’re going to try to destroy a myth, then use brave men and an even more potent myth, and there are none more capable of capturing the imagination than that of Theseus. If we don’t deal in myths and the magical effects they can produce, then we find ourselves dealing instead with historical mysteries, which have far less power to persuade than myths, but which are equably durable on account of their power to intrigue people who are minded to ask searching questions.