Celebrities never die, they just experience declining ratings. That may be the fate that has befallen Osama bin Laden, the world’s number one terrorist brand name. No one should take Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari’s statement that bin Laden may be dead seriously. Islamabad has every motive to peddle this line: a dead bin Laden would help get the US off its back. Bin Laden is experiencing poor Nielsen numbers these days. Islamicist terror is alive and kicking, but his role is increasingly passive.
Bin Laden may have more influence beyond the grave. Consider the experience of rock’n’roll star Elvis Presley. After he died in 1977, one tabloid used to give detailed accounts of his post-death life, had him genuinely declared dead in the 1990s and — when their circulation fell — resurrected him one more time. Admirers of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose received a fillip recently when Taiwan officially said it had no record of the airplane crash in which he supposedly died.
The hero who never dies, who lives anonymously in a cave or prison biding his time, is a secular spin-off of the messiah myth. At its heart is a celebrity who metamorphoses into a cultural icon, representing an ideology or a social movement well beyond the hero’s physical existence. Presley has come to symbolise a time of American innocence. Bose represents sub-regional aspirations. As bin Laden becomes a legitimising name invoked by Islamicist militants everywhere the problem for embattled Pakistan is that he may live forever.