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How did Osama bin Laden Become a Revered Hero?

The bin Laden story aligns perfectly with the psychological narrative of the 2019 Hollywood blockbuster "Joker."
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December 21, 2023
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The story of Bin Laden’s “letter to America,” which went viral within 24 hours with the help of TikTok, is nothing short of a super-clever and sophisticated maneuver. If there are still people who belittle our enemies even after the events of Oct. 7 and after their latest global PR campaign — conducted with the help of the younger generation — they refuse to understand or acknowledge that we are facing a shrewd and prepared enemy.

The bin Laden story aligns perfectly with the psychological narrative of the 2019 Hollywood blockbuster “Joker.” Hollywood made millions out of it, and whoever decided to reinterpret it – to accommodate the 9/11 terrorist attacks –  read the cultural map carefully.

“Joker” is a psychological thriller that tells the story of a failed comedian whose life events turn him into a psychopathic murderer. The film invites the viewer to step into the shoes of the villain, empathize with him, feel the pain of his life story, and thus understand his descent into madness –  his actions of revenge and murder seem justified. It is a violent movie, and even when it was released in the United States, there were concerns that it might incite violent incidents. The film subjects the viewer to psychological manipulation, causing confusion, identification with the antihero, and a confrontation with moral questions such as whether it is ever permissible for someone whose life has disillusioned him to become a mass murderer. Is revenge allowed and justified because you have been wronged? The viewer becomes perplexed and begins to consider that violence is more acceptable when there is a well-explained and well-argued justification, a possible permission structure for heinous violence. A film in which violence is reframed as justified by playing on audience empathy is undoubtedly a dangerous one.

The final scene of “Joker” is an unbelievably impeccable fit for the recent TikTok rehabilitation, even sanctification, of bin Laden. In the concluding scene, masses of New Yorkers become fans of the Joker, idolizing the powerful antihero for his gumption in avenging the hidden angers that, according to law and morality, the world does not allow. They don masks, drawing inspiration and license to vandalize and wreak chaos throughout the city.

The Joker as antihero perfectly mirrors the currently fashionable narrative of Osama bin Laden, who in his 2002 “Letter to America” justifies and reframes his murderous terrorism as moral and heroic, coming to rescue and avenge those who lack power – his vengeance is on their behalf. 

The Joker as antihero perfectly mirrors the currently fashionable narrative of Osama bin Laden, who in his 2002 “Letter to America” justifies and reframes his murderous terrorism as moral and heroic, coming to rescue and avenge those who lack power – his vengeance is on their behalf. Thus he frames himself as a hero. The TikTok generation that spread the video behaved much like the enthusiastic crowd in the final scene of Joker. A multitude that fell victim to cleverly crafted psychological manipulation.

Beyond the reframed narrative — the Twin Towers disaster — and the carefully chosen performance, retrieving the letter from the 9/11 archives was not by chance. Just as the Holocaust is the defining trauma that shapes the identity of the Jewish people, the events of 9/11 profoundly and negatively marked the identity of Muslims. In order to ensure that the events of 9/11 do not impede the argument of those standing in solidarity with the Palestinians in the narrative war that accompanies the all-too-real war, they had to recast the Twin Towers terrorist attacks as a natural response to oppressive power. 

When discussing the identity of groups in social and political psychology, events that shape and influence group identity  — especially the traumatic ones — carry significant weight . People do not want to belong to a group that casts them in a negative light and hobbles them from shaping their identity in a way that makes them feel good about themselves. Traumatic events, such as the 9/11 attacks, act like a shameful stain on the collective Muslim identity. If members of your identity group committed such cruel terrorism, you immediately are subject to a nearly indelible negative stigma, a form of identity extension. I wasn’t particularly surprised when, with the outbreak of war, I saw articles pointing out the resurgence of Islamophobia due to the events in Israel.

The same backlash of hatred American Muslims experienced in the wake of 9/11 resurfaced after the massacre in southern Israel. 

In an effort to diminish the convulsive hatred that arose after the massacre in Israel, an analog of justification was made of the events of 9/11. They did exactly what I described at the beginning of this piece. The Oct. 7 attacks were reframed as self-defense and understandable revenge with the help of Osama bin Laden. A transformation of terror into moral heroism. Despite the moral gymnastics, I must say it’s an excellent piece of work. 

“Joker” was a blockbuster. But we are not in a movie, this is our reality.


Dana Fahn-Luzon is a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI). She is an Israeli content creator, media, and communication personality.

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