It is one of the oldest moral conflicts in world culture: what to do with the body of your slain enemy. The body of Osama bin Laden was buried at sea, according to the White House, apparently in order to prevent his burial place from becoming a shrine.
But might the manner of that burial, and the denial of his body to his family, ultimately foster an even greater "martyr" myth?
This conflict can be traced back to Greek mythology and the tragedy of Antigone (as written by Sophocles, in the 5th century B.C.). Antigone's brother, Polyneices, rebelled against their city, Thebes, and was slain in battle. The king, Creon, uncle to Polyneices and Antigone, ordered that Polyneices' body be left to rot where it had fallen, outside the city walls. Antigone violated Creon's law, was caught trying to bury her brother, and was sentenced to death; her death brings tragedy down upon her family, and upon the state of Thebes.
In a modern version by the Irish poet and Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, the play concludes with the somber observation of the chorus:
"Wise conduct is the key to happiness.
Always rule by the gods and reverence them.
Those who overbear will be brought to grief."
Heaney called his version The Burial at Thebes, making the burial of Polyneices the central motif of the play. When I asked him about this in an interview a few years ago, he said the plight of Antigone had recalled for him the deaths of the Irish Republican hunger strikers. (The first of those 10 deaths, that of Bobby Sands, took place 30 years ago this month, on May 5, 1981.)
The second of the hunger strikers to die, Francis Hughes, had been a neighbor of Heaney's family. Heaney recalled how, when Hughes' body was removed from the prison for burial, the British Army refused to hand it over to the family, and instead kept charge of it "as far as three or four miles from the home place."
"There was a huge sense of outrage at that," Heaney said. "There, you really had Antigone's situation: the state claiming the right over the family's dead."
That outrage persisted even longer in relation to another Republican death, that of 19-year-old Tom Williams, executed in 1942 for his part in the killing of a Belfast police officer. Williams was buried in an unmarked grave within the prison grounds; he was duly commemorated in a Republican ballad, and became the subject of a decades-long campaign for the return of his body, which concluded in 2000 with a mass funeral and his re-interment in a Belfast Republican cemetery.
Anthony McIntyre was one of those motivated to join the Irish Republican Army by this, amid other events. He subsequently served 18 years in prison and took part in the so-called "blanket" protests that led to the hunger strikes. (After his release, he founded the influential intellectual journal The Blanket, and now writes a blog on politics and ethics, The Pensive Quill.)
"If you take a body and hold onto it, and deny the family the right to bury it, it adds insult to injury," he said. He recalled that the body of Hughes, who had been convicted of the murder of a British Army soldier, had had cigarettes stubbed out on it by the British security forces. "The desecration of bodies created a great deal of animosity."
The lesson from Ireland might be, then, to return the remains of political opponents or enemies to their families for proper burial. But Republican rhetoric itself implicitly warns against this. In one of the key speeches in Irish political history, Pádraig Pearse gave the graveside oration at the 1915 funeral of the Fenian leader Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa. "The fools, the fools, the fools!" he cried of the British. "They have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace."
Less than a year later, Pearse would join those dead, executed along with the other leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916. Those executions would prove to be the turning point in the long campaign for Irish independence, convincing the Irish majority of the imperative to break with Britain, which was finally achieved in 1922. The graves of the 1916 leaders are a site of annual commemoration and Republican pilgrimage to this day.
The lesson implicit in Pearse's oration has been applied in very different contexts, most notably that of the treatment of the Nazis.
Those executed following the Nuremberg trials — along with Hermann Göring, who had committed suicide — were cremated, and their ashes spread in the Isar River. Adolf Eichmann, who was subsequently captured in Argentina in 1960 and executed by Israel in 1962, was also cremated; his ashes were spread in the Mediterranean, beyond Israeli territorial waters.
According to Israeli government records released in 2007, the Israeli prime minister at the time, David Ben-Gurion, argued for the necessity of avoiding Eichmann's grave becoming a "holy tomb," and said: "This is what I wanted, that not a trace of him will remain."
Adolf Hitler's body was initially buried, and subsequently re-interred, secretly, at a Soviet military base in East Germany. In 1970, a KGB team was ordered to disinter and cremate Hitler's remains. The last surviving member of that team, Vladimir Gumenyuk, said last year that he would go to his grave with the secret of where they had scattered Hitler's ashes.
"There are still too many neo-Nazis around," he said. "There would be pilgrimages. They would even put up a monument."
The tension between affording the remains of the enemy respect and preventing the erection of shrines also was evident in deaths of some of the iconic figures of the postcolonial conflicts in Africa and Latin America.
Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the Republic of the Congo, was executed by a Belgian firing squad in 1961; his body was subsequently cut up with a hacksaw and dissolved in sulfuric acid. As political scientist Tom Lodge, author of the forthcoming book Sharpeville: A Massacre and Its Consequences, observes, the effect of so "dishonoring the body" was to "kill him two times", violating the profound respect for the dead in Bantu cultures.
Che Guevara, the guerrilla leader, was executed in Bolivia in 1967; his body was put on public display (leading to a series of iconic photographs) and then buried in a secret location. It was finally located in 1997 and re-interred in a dedicated mausoleum in Cuba.
In South Africa during the civil conflict that preceded the end of apartheid, the bodies of victims often "disappeared" for similar reasons. As Lodge observes, one of the functions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission became "identifying where people were buried, so their families could give them a decent burial."
More recently, the long-running Angolan civil war, concluded in 2002 with the killing of the UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi in an ambush by government troops in the sparsely populated province of Luena, in the far east of the country. Footage of his body was broadcast on national television (and rapidly became available on video cassette in local markets), and he was subsequently buried in a modest grave. "Dishonoring" his body was "one threshold that they weren't prepared to cross," Lodge notes. And after all, UNITA's members and supporters had to subsequently be reintegrated into the national body politic.
Yet, in a country without an adequate transportation network, ravaged by three decades of war, the possibility of his grave becoming a shrine was as remote as the grave itself.
Like Eichmann, bin Laden was apparently buried at sea in international waters, inhibiting even the possibility of any one country being taken as his final resting place; unlike the "Fenian dead" of Ireland, nobody holds his grave. His body was reportedly prepared according to Islamic law, although there is disagreement among Islamic scholars as to whether it was legitimate for him to be buried at sea. (Islamic law suggests that burial at sea should only be used when the person has died at sea, and when it is not possible to reach land for a timely burial.)
In one of the more bizarre twists to this story to emerge so far, journalist, screenwriter and al-Qaeda expert Lawrence Wright said that the CIA had asked him, in 2006, to write various fictional scenarios for them, outlining how bin Laden might be killed, and how his body might be dealt with, with what consequences.
"What if we did get him? How would we treat him? Where would we take him? Would it be better to take him alive or dead?" they asked him. "And because I had written this movie, The Siege, and Hollywood had done a somewhat better job of connecting the dots about terrorism and the threat to America than the intelligence community, the CIA was reaching out to screenwriters," he told NPR. (Also see the transcript here: "Does America Owe Hollywood its Gratitude?")
Wright suggested to the CIA, by way of an op-ed article, that bin Laden be publicly tried in the various countries in which al-Qaeda had committed atrocities. "If you catch him, don't kill him, because he'll become a martyr, which is what he seeks to be," he said. The CIA displayed "not very much interest" in his idea. With bin Laden's death, "he will continue to live as a potent symbol," Wright said. "There's no question that he's going to have an enduring appeal [for al-Qaeda-type terrorist groups]."
The question for history will be whether the manner of bin Laden's burial increases or decreases the potency of that symbol, and whether the belief that that burial was an act of desecration in itself creates more animosity than would have been provoked by a permanent shrine.
As Heaney wrote, after Sophocles, "Those who overbear will be brought to grief."
Whether this act was an overbearing one, or a necessary one, is for future historians to judge — and perhaps, for future screenwriters and playwrights.