The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Was it an insult to Native Americans to give Osama bin Laden the code name Geronimo?

May 4, 2011 |  1:39 pm

Geronimo In Rupert Murdoch's conservative media empire, the death of Osama bin Laden brought great huzzahs of good cheer, followed quickly by a return to the real issue of the day -- stirring up partisan bloodlust. Over at "The O'Reilly Factor," most of the debate last night was over why the weak-kneed Democrats wouldn't acknowledge that it was waterboarding that sparked the intelligence breakthroughs that led our special forces to Bin Laden's cushy hideout in Pakistan. O'Reilly even managed to get worked up over a claim by an obscure college professor that Bin Laden should've been taken alive, inspiring O'Reilly to growl: "A bullet in the head is pretty much all the healing Bin Laden deserved."

At the New York Post, columnist Michelle Malkin urged President Obama, as a gesture of healing, to invite former President George W. Bush to a ceremony at ground zero (something it turns out the president had already done). But Malkin quickly abandoned all that kumbaya-style healing rhetoric to lambaste Democrats for being "poll-obsessed liberal opportunists."

But at the Wall Street Journal, the editorial pages have been full of praise for Obama's decisive thrust against Bin Laden, perhaps because Murdoch's minions have been trying to broaden the Journal's appeal by attracting more moderate business readers (i.e., New York Times subscribers). Still, it was something of a shocker to discover a post at the Journal's Speakeasy culture blog arguing that it was an insult to Native Americans for U.S. special forces to identify Bin Laden by the code name Geronimo.

The piece, penned by Debbie Reese, an assistant professor in American Indian studies at the University of Illinois, reads like a dead-on parody of a story you'd expect to see in the Nation or (gasp!) hear on Pacifica Radio. Reese argues:

When the news broke that Osama bin Laden was killed in an operation named "Geronimo," I thought about all the children's books that portray American Indians as courageous heroes or bloodthirsty savages. Those images shape readers and what they think about American Indians. Missing from those books is the back story of who those American Indians "heroes" and "savages" were: men and women who were fighting to protect their parents and children, their communities, their ways of worship, and their homelands. ... A Native frame of reference is one that is inundated with appropriation and misrepresentation of who we were, and who we are today. There are research studies that point to the negative effects of this sort of imagery on the self-esteem and self-efficacy of Native children. ... If your point of view is Geronimo as the blood-thirsty savage, then you probably think that Geronimo was a terrorist.  Regardless of how you frame the use of his name, history books will forever link the name of a Native leader with a terrorist, and Native children and their families will have yet another instance of appropriation and misrepresentation to address with the educational system.  Isn’t that enough reason to object?

I have to admit that I think Reese has a point, though I'm not sure I'd be arguing the case against Geronimo because I was worried about Native American self-esteem issues. Geronimo was a war leader, not a terrorist, fighting for what he saw as his rightful lands. It makes about as much sense to invoke his name as a code word for Bin Laden as it would be to use the name Gen. Custer. There are plenty of historical figures the special forces could have used, starting with Attila the Hun or Genghis Khan.

Even better, couldn't we have simply used an apt reference from pop culture, referring to Bin Laden as Jaws, Scarface or Hannibal Lecter? On the other hand, I'm pleasantly surprised to see such an unusual display of historical sensitivity in the Journal. The only thing I'd be even more eager to see is the look on Fox News chief Roger Ailes' face when he read it.

-- Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Geronimo in an undated photo. Credit: Associated Press