Murder in the Simulacrum: Bin Laden, Unbelievable Deaths and Depictions of Legal Exceptionality
Yes, the Cathars held the material world to be evil and bad, created by demons. At the same time, they put their faith in God, the holy and the possibility of perfection.
- Jean Baudrillard, Der Spiegel Interview, 2002.
The enemy is our own question embodied
And he will hound us, and we will hound him to the same end
- Theodor Däubler
A Time Magazine issue released immediately after the assassination of Osama bin Laden, shows the figure of the al Qaeda leader with a red cross marked on his face. Erasure, liquidation, a figure expunged. The magazine issue strikes a note of triumphalism — the United States had finally gotten its man in the preferred state: dead. But this was no conventional death. Nothing regarding bin Laden’s deaths (for he has died several times) has been ‘conventional’. From the moment the Twin Towers were attacked on September 11, 2011 and assimilated into the symbolic language of apocalyptic terrorism, the entire ‘war’ (itself necessarily a questionable state) became an image, be it through the terrorist response itself, or the reaction of the security state. The execution he was administered was not the equivalent of a head on a stake outside the Tower of London. Nor did it resemble the display of the Anabaptist Jan Bockelson’s remains, exhibited in cages hung from St. Lambert’s Church, Münster in 1536 as a reminder of what happens to those who challenge a powerful order. It was a digitalised public execution that was filmed, programmed, and streamed live to the White House. The only thing missing in the images of a stunned Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and fellow grim faces in the situation room were the mandatory additions viewers bring to see a film: buckets of popcorn, super sized soft drinks. Pizza, however, was provided.
The very execution was engineered in circumstances of controlled deception. From the moment of its planning, the mission to kill bin Laden was concealed from both ally and foe alike. The Pakistani authorities may well have been kept in the dark till the penultimate assault on the military compound harbouring the leader.  Left reeling, the Foreign Ministry could only claim that the information American forces had obtained had come from their offices. “It is important to highlight that taking advantage of much superior and technological assets, [the] CIA exploited the intelligence leads given by us to identify and reach Osama bin Laden.”  That he had already been declared dead on numerous occasions prior to his killing on May 1 also showed on the one hand the irrelevance of the revelation, and on the other, the dangers to the credibility of the US security forces. What is proposed here is a detailed examination of that death, its meaning, its relevance, and its representation in the broader technological scape of modern war and its intersections with justice. How can the digitised murder of a designated terrorist be framed within the context of modern justice?
The exceptional death
Within a democratic context, or to be more exact, in a context where the rule of law is said to apply, doctrines of exceptionality have been carved out.  Legal purgatory is the site in history in which revisions, modifications and abridgments can be made to a subject’s rights to reflect the nature of that emergency and the threat. This “state of exception” is a juridical-political category where illegality and legality blur before the justification of emergency.  The nature of such an approach is reflected by legalistic arguments put forth by advocates of torture who have effectively enhanced its use in a discursive manner precisely because expectations in terms of security can no longer be “mapped”.  States can, in that sense, deal in the currency of torture, the erosion of the subject’s will . The global manhunt for an exceptional terrorist, extraordinary rendition or illegal interventions are based not, as theorists M. Hardt and A. Egri explain, “on a priori framework, moral or legal, but only a posteriori, based on its results.” 
Bin Laden effectively became a constituted species of homo sacer, a figure who follows a trend in many societies where various offenders are privileged by labels of exceptionalism that allow for their eradication. For “here was an object called by this solemn adjective, homo sacer, which might be violated without any nefas [deadly crime]: a man whom anyone might slay with impunity.”  Bin Laden, like his followers, were the exceptions that had to be targeted in a global war, all of them “like ticking time bombs, set to go off without warning.” There could be no waiting before “perils” as they drew closer. 
Students of the evolution of that term find that “sacer” was rendered exceptional from the idea of the sacred — the sacrum — beings or entities considered to be the property of a deity. The killing with impunity of a designated homo sacer was an atavistic throwback in which such a figure is considered an object of taboo, a being to be disposed of without legal penalty. Biologically, such a subject remains human, but legally, he exists as a non-person who can be struck down and killed. Such a being is “cursed and consecrated at the same moment.” 
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures in the School of Global Studies, Social Science and Planning, RMIT University, Melbourne.