June 3, 2014

Conservative Backlash Gets Visual in White House's Soldier – Taliban Prisoner Swap

Six years into a presidency Republicans vowed to undermine “just because,” Obama has been fortunate for one thing. Of all the issues and events that have turned into political footballs, few — including Obamacare and even Benghazi — have lent themselves to the kind of visual stigmatization that could sustain the leap to posters, billboards, political commercials and really nasty associations in people’s eidetic minds and memories. That is, until now.

Certainly, the prisoner exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is red meat for an opposition that hasn’t had that as vivid an issue to really sink its teeth into. The deal to trade Bergdahl for five high profile Gitmo detainees, however, threatens to dust off the visual genre of the “war on terror,” a vocabulary that has been more in remission.

Of course, I’m not showing you anything here that isn’t already circulating in the caustic hothouse of the political and social web. Rather, I’m just taking those visuals boiling to the surface and putting some air quotes around them. One thing that can be said, though, is that visual memes are moving faster and lending themselves to more chaotic and viral expression then anything we saw during the heyday of Bush’s Iraq intervention. The DailyMail put together the Homeland/Nicholas Brody analogy, by the way, as if Bowe was actually a one man Taliban sleeper cell, not just a young man who has had some seriously mixed feelings about the war.

And “the Taliban 5,” as they are being referred to (rhetorically playing on America’s penchant for all-star bball teams and/or classic rock bands) evokes various other visual arrays of “evil doers,” going back to the granddaddy, the 9/11 highjackers.

And then, there’s the smoking out of Mullah Omar, who actually came out of the ether to offer a celebratory quote, but who is otherwise visualized via a murky screen grab to drive home the steep price paid for Bergdahl (and drive up the media clicks).

Also,  expect to see at least twenty or thirty of these, the connection between the two being rather ambiguous (Bowe looking rather footloose, no?):

for every instance of this:

these being screen shots from a hostage video in 2010 described by SITE (via SupportBowe.com) as featuring Bowe with Mullah Sangin Zadrain, a senior official in the al-Qaida-linked Haqqani network.

Finally, good luck to Bowie’s father, Bob, because one thing the media lens resists is complexity. If the POW/MIA movement with its bikers and Vietnam-era vets already represent an eclectic visual mix, the Bergdahl’s at this rally last year (AP slideshow) not only contributed a 60-ish vibe (who said anything about Jane Fonda?), but Bob, in his POW skullcap, the effusive beard and the black shirt and beads is ripe for descriminating mixing-and-matching with the stereotype of an imam.

And not to say there aren’t visual parallels to Phil Robertson. Still, Mr. Duck Dynasty’s political proclivities place him more squarely in the miltia mode and the backwoods look. That’s compared to the senior Bergdahl whose appearance, and the range of comparisons, are more determined by an Obama who established himself early on as a presidential candidate by touting an antiwar profile.

Given that, plus the activist nature and cross-cultural empathy of Bowie and Bob, reads — to the right wing attack machine, anyway — more like “hippie,” or more specifically, hippy Taliban sympathizer.

(images: Taliban collage via al Jazeera. Brody/Homeland via AP, AFP/Getty, LMK via DailyMail. SITE video caption: 2010 December: In the 69-minute video, Bergdahl, who is seen in just a few seconds of footage that includes a montage of past militant attacks and news events, nods occasionally as if acknowledging another speaker and often looks down at the ground. Produced by Manba al-Jihad, a video production group of the Haqqani network, the video was released on the website of the Afghan Taliban on December 2, 2010 but appeared on jihadist forums the previous month, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks militant websites. podium: Jae C. Hong/AP. caption: Jani Bergdahl, left, joined by husband, Bob, the parents of captive U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, speaks at the “Bring Bowe Back” celebration held to honor Sgt. Bergdahl in Hailey, Idaho, Saturday, June 22, 2013. Hundreds of activists for missing service members gathered in a small Idaho town Saturday to hear the parents of the only known U.S. prisoner of war speak just days after his Taliban captors announced they want to exchange him for prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay. With Obama: AP. caption: President Barack Obama is flanked by Bergdahl’s parents, Jani and Bob, during a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House on May 31.Photo.)

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Michael Shaw
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