What Foucault has to say about Bin Laden’s death

(Photo: Parivartan Sharma/Reuters)

The ripples of Bin Laden’s death one week ago have expanded from Pakistan to the whole of the world. Some people have commented at the implications this may have for Africa – see this ISS brief, or this blog post by CFR program associate Mohamed Jallow (via John Campbell’s blog). And just today, Reuters has reported that Somalia’s Al Shabaab has vowed to avenge Bin Laden’s death.

Beyond the analysis of the possible implications Bin Laden’s death may have on conflicts and terrorist groups around the world, much of the coverage following the announcement has focussed on the actions by the US military – including the US relationship with Pakistan, whether the execution was legal, the burial at sea and what this means, whether or not to release the picture of his body. Most criticis, including Noam Chomsky, have stressed how the operation was clearly planned to be an execution and the option of capturing Bin Laden and putting him on trial was never seriously considered.

About the same time I was reading these condemnations of the US actions, I was also, reading a review by Luis Arranz Notario (Spanish)  of Foucault’s biography “Foucault. Pensamiento y Vida” by Paul Veyne. Writing about Foucault’s view of revolutionary tribunals Arranz Notario notes:

“Foucault …considered pure formalism, “rationalisation”, the creation of special tribunals to punish counter-revolutionaries and other enemies “of the people”. First, one ought to act, this is, execute and then discuss the role of revolutionary tribunals. The educational ideal to be achieved by the State consisted then in  “educating the very masses”, so that they can get to say “in fact, we cannot kill this man” or “in fact, we must kill him”.”

I find this an interesting – although possibly mistaken – view, because it shifts the legal and moral dilemma over (and possible condemnation of) Bin Laden’s execution, away from the President and to the people. Thus, seeing the scenes of joy and celebration on the streets in the US tells us a lot about how years of “education” of the people into seeing Bin Laden as an “enemy of the people” and the rest of the “war-on-terror” syllabus, has succeeded in making them believe that this was the right choice.

Of course Obama could have changed the syllabus – capturing Bin Laden and putting him on trial – and expect that people will celebrate this too. But then again, this “new lesson” may have taken longer to learn that the 18 months left until the next Presidential election…

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