Noelle McCarthy
Noelle McCarthy is a Herald columnist

Noelle McCarthy: Country united in a state of illusion


The great television writer David Milch talks about "illusions, agreed upon" as the things we organise ourselves around.

Milch is the man who created Deadwood, and before that Hill Street Blues, a brilliant writer with a genius for characterisation and dialogue that is at once naturalistic and gloriously ornate.

A few months ago I saw a video of a talk he gave to graduate students at the University of Southern California. Watch it on YouTube if you ever have time, it's great.

There's David Milch, swigging on energy drinks, talking in his genial, rapid-fire gabble about everything from Kirkegaard to surfing, but especially illusions, agreed upon, because these are the things a TV writer needs to build a world.

The "illusions" in question can be anything, he says. Everything from Brad Pitt to the cross of Christ. In the story of Deadwood the illusion is gold. It is gold, and the money from gold, that binds the people of Deadwood together, that the community builds itself around. The illusion is a symbol, obviously, and it doesn't really matter what it is.

What's important is that we come together to choose the symbol, and invest it with its value.

It's a group decision, deciding to make this thing, whatever it is, bigger than the sum of its parts. The illusion, once agreed upon, binds us together, gives us something to organise ourselves around.

In the killing of Osama bin Laden, we have witnessed the death of an illusion, agreed upon this week.

Bin Laden, as illusion, was agreed upon nearly 10 years ago when the attack on the Twin Towers traumatised the western world. He wasn't just an illusion, of course. He existed in real life.

A terrorist mastermind, bold enough to plan an outrage on American soil, the father of al-Qaeda, a good-looking member of the Saudi elite. He's the man the Americans have spent the last 10 years hunting, who gave them the slip at Tora Bora, who's dead now, at what's generally agreed to be the age of 54.

That was bin Laden the man, the one who was killed this week. But there was another Bin Laden who came out of the soot and filth of Ground Zero, and it was this bin Laden that America had to kill.

The man with the plan, the maniac who had the nerve. A mythological nemesis, brought to life as the towers came down. Those towers were a symbol as well, of course.

A symbol standing, and a symbol in smoking ruins on the ground. That is why they were chosen, and that is why bin Laden will be forever linked to them and why his fate was sealed the day they came down.

The towers and the mastermind, the conflagration and its creator, one of the most powerful dualities of the 21st century. Since September 11, those two images have had to exist as a pair.

The charnel house in Manhattan, and the doe-eyed ascetic in the snowy white robes. A heavenly looking devil, and a picture of hell on earth. These symbols were given to us by an act of pure mania. Having bound itself around them, it's not surprising what America did next.

And so to the hunt. It was the deaths of thousands that gave bin Laden stature, and in the face of wholesale murder, the people of America had licence to hate. They may not all have hated him, but everyone made him bigger.

He was bigger than his biography, his own personality, his deadly plan. This bin Laden sprung to life as a ready-made symbol of all the things America could fear and hate.

The killing of civilians, a hellish attack from a clear blue sky, and the shadowy forces massing against them in all the distant corners of the world. That is what he stood for, a hated, treasured fugitive, as he withstood years of pursuit.

For a decade he haunted the war story, a murderous inspiration for generations of terrorists, the granddaddy of mayhem, holed up in some dank mountainous cave. That the truth had him in the altogether more salubrious setting of a comfortable compound in Pakistan is no matter really, what matters for the story is that he's dead.

And the power of that victory for the Obama Administration rests not in the tactical or military importance of his dispatching (what of Ayman Al Zawahiri, his second in command?) but rather in the unifying potential of the illusion, agreed upon, finally put to rest. These illusions bring us together, says David Milch, allowing us to relate to one another, irrespective of race, class, or economic divides. It's about unity, fraternity, connection.

In other words, political gold. This week, Barack Obama got to tell America they'd killed their greatest fear. It's bound them together, it's made him their Chief. In terms of political capital, it's priceless. Which is lucky, because he'll need it. It's not hard to imagine that for America there are plenty more monsters on the way.

- NZ Herald

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