Special Report

Geronimo and Osama

The Religious Left joins in the denunciations -- without knowing too much about the story. 

By 5.13.11

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Some Indian groups and Religious Left groups are protesting that apparently the operation to kill Osama bin Laden was codenamed "Geronimo." 

"While we decry terrorism in any form, we refute the notion that our Native leaders, past and current, be paralleled in any way with persons who unashamedly destroy life," complained the head of a United Methodist General Board of Church and Society Native American Task Force. "We are all articulating the disappointment, concern and frustration with the use of the name of this iconic Native American hero."

Geronimo was a shrewd warrior who combated Mexican and U.S. military forces for decades. Whether he was a "hero" is open to question. He did "unashamedly destroy life," including atrocities against civilians. (His defenders point out that Apaches also were on the receiving end of atrocities.) Mexicans and Americans at the time viewed him with some of the same dread and loathing more recently aimed at Osama bin Laden. Geronimo with his very few remaining warriors did not surrender until 1886, pursued by thousands of U.S. Army cavalry. It's hard to see how his having prolonged a vicious and futile war helped his people. 

During his nearly last quarter century of life after surrender, Geronimo sort of embraced Christianity at least for a time, largely accepted U.S. rule, and became a nationwide celebrity, despite or because of his former status as a brutal warrior and enemy of U.S. forces. He was even featured in Teddy Roosevelt's 1904 inaugural parade. Presumably Osama bin Laden, had he survived as a captive, would never have ridden down Pennsylvania Avenue in an open vehicle.

Evangelical Left writer Brian McLaren, guru to the Emergent Church movement, was visiting Europe during Osama bin Laden's death and fumed over the "Geronimo" codename, which "shocked, disgusted, dismayed, and sickened" him. McLaren chose to read into the codename a rich tapestry of sinister intent, backed by centuries of sordid imperialist history. "Are we still engaged in Westward Expansion (making our way from California to Hawaii and the Philippines, then to Southeast Asia and now to the Middle East)?" he wondered ominously. "Are we still cowboys hunting Indians? Are we still working out a narrative of Manifest Destiny? Has there been no acknowledgment in our government and our people of the holocaust we waged against Native Peoples, the land theft, attempted genocide, cultural imperialism, and outrageous injustice?" McLaren indignantly charged: "In the code-name Geronimo, has the US government made a 'Freudian slip' that reveals one of the dark and violent drives still at work in our national psyche?"

In Religious Left mythology, the U.S. is an endlessly and uniquely hegemonic power whose crimes began with the suppression of the original tribal peoples, for which we should endlessly seek atonement. As with many myths, there's a bit of truth here. But this particular myth neglects to admit that the original tribal peoples were themselves perpetually warring against each other, and exterminating each other, many centuries before any European arrived. All nations and cultures everywhere were founded amid conquest and blood, for better or worse. While traditional Christians can readily acknowledge the sinfulness of all humanity, Religious Left utopians struggle with this admission, preferring to demonize impersonal systems: militarism, imperialism, capitalism, Western Civilization.

Even the distinguished British theologian and Church of England Bishop Tom Wright is not immune from this affliction. Thoroughly sensible and orthodox on theology, but often absurd politically, he often bemoans the supposed unique threat posed by the U.S. In a British op-ed, he speculated that the U.S. mission to kill Osama bin Laden was rooted in sinister "American exceptionalism" and "The Myth of the American Superhero and Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil." He reluctantly granted the myth may have been "necessary in the days of the wild west." But nowadays it "legitimises a form of vigilantism, of taking the law into one's own hands, which provides 'justice' only of the crudest sort." Actions like the strike on Osama bin Laden only "work," Wright warned, when the "hero can shoot better than the villain." But the villains' friends may seek vengeance, which is why "proper justice is designed precisely to outflank such escalation," he explained. Presumably "proper justice" would have been a cordial court trial for Bin Laden, though it's unclear how a prolonged media circus around such a trial and decades long captivity would have avoided provoking "vengeance" from Bin Laden's friends.

Proper justice in today's world is difficult, Wright surmised, because the U.S. has portrayed the UN as "hapless," as though the UN itself had not contributed to the impression. Wright concluded by wondering: "And what has any of this to do with something most Americans also believe, that the God of ultimate justice and truth was fully and finally revealed in the crucified Jesus of Nazareth, who taught people to love their enemies, and warned that those who take the sword will perish by the sword?" So Wright, who should know better, is seemingly at least a functional pacifist, who won't grasp that Christianity has always taught that civil authorities are God's instrument for wielding the sword against the likes of Bin Laden. As to American Exceptionalism, all great nations with the wherewithal have vigorously pursued their most wicked enemies. It took Wright's own British nation 13 years to avenge the slaughter of General Charles Gordon at Khartoum with General Herbert Horatio Kitchener's victory at Omdurman, after which Kitchener dug up the bones of Gordon's tormentor, the self-professed Mahdi, and dumped them into the Nile, while reputedly keeping the skull for himself at least for a time.

Of course, according to myth, young Yale students, including President George W. Bush's grandfather, supposedly dug up Geronimo's skull for their famed Skull and Bones Society. Some Apaches, aided by the perpetually aggrieved Ramsey Clark, have sought its return. History can decide whether naming the Bin Laden operation after Geronimo was wise or even consequential. What is more noteworthy are the endless exertions of some Western church elites to avoid confronting Bin Laden's brand of evil while constructing endless fantasies to demonize America. 

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About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.