A reflection on “Where in the World is Osama bin Laden”

NOTE: “Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?” is no longer playing in Kansas City. The video is expected to be released this fall. 

By Matt Smithmier

He’s arguably the most wanted man in the world. But in the new documentary “Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?” director Morgan Spurlock tackles the question that the United States military has been asking for seven years.

Back in better health after his fast-food experiment in “Super Size Me,” Spurlock is still the slightly sarcastic, regular-guy journalist on a mission. This time, instead of a global corporate empire, he’s taking on terrorism and its uncomfortable cohort the “war on terrorism” – another sort of global empire.

Motivated by the upcoming birth of his first child, he sets out on a journey to find bin Laden, the Sept. 11 puppet master and leader of al-Qaida, with the hope that the world will be a safer place for his new kid once the ringleader is found. “If I’ve learned anything from big-budget action films, it’s that complicated world problems are best solved by one lonely guy,” he declares to the camera in the introduction.

Because this is a Spurlock film, we get plenty of zany effects and antics to accompany us on the journey. Thankfully, however, as we get to the meat of the movie, Spurlock gets a little more serious and we can really see what we’re here to see – that the real issue is not where bin Laden might be but why and how a bin Laden ever existed in the first place.

After completing extensive security training and a battery of vaccinations, Spurlock takes us to all of the hot spots: Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan. He talks to people on the street, journalists, students, tribal leaders, even children. He doesn’t waste time proselytizing to his audience about his theories (for the most part), and he doesn’t have to. The voices of the people who live in the thick of this environment spell out the story quite effectively. The film feels less like an opinion piece and more like a day-in-the-life exposé.

And while Spurlock talks to many locals who are ashamed of bin Laden’s actions and blame him for the war in their backyard, he doesn’t shy away from finding those dissident voices, even tracking down relatives of some of the 9/11 hijackers. He asks all of them not only where he can find bin Laden but also what they think of America and 9/11.

It’s no big spoiler to reveal that Spurlock doesn’t actually find bin Laden. But what he does uncover is infinitely more illuminating of the pressures and motivations that drive extremism, which ensure that this “war on terror” is nowhere close to being won – or lost.

With supporting testimony from some of his interviewees, Spurlock proposes that much of the unrest is actually due to America’s actions through the last several decades, including our financial and military support of authoritarian leaders who restrict their citizens’ political voices and oppress the local culture. As a result, Islamic fundamentalism was able to grow by leaps and bounds by seemingly offering the only real avenue to freedom and activism. “Extremism nourishes itself from darkness,” one interviewee says.

Spurlock has a couple of theories about what’s causing the darkness today. While he is very grateful and respectful of the U.S. military’s presence in the region – including their safe escort into Afghanistan’s Taliban country so he could interview locals – he questions the destruction and lack of promised rebuilding that drives a wedge between the American government and the local residents. He also visits the Gaza Strip and wonders if the ongoing conflict between Israelites and Palestinians isn’t actually fueling the need for terrorism. If peace in the region was declared tomorrow, would there really be a need for bin Laden?

It seems a little strange to report that a film about such a dire and threatening topic actually leaves you with hope. But in fact, Spurlock manages to inspire with his documentary, showing viewers firsthand that the majority of the people who live in such a war-torn landscape are not the extremists that we should fear. They are people who want peace – not only for their own families, but for the United States as well as the entire world. Spurlock himself changes his own mission – from catching a madman to make the world safer for his unborn child to discovering the reasons for the fear and hatred so the world will be safer for everyone’s children.

The film leaves you with the hope that these “ordinary” people will eventually win out over the extremist on all sides, that humanity will someday right itself, dissolving fear and hatred with understanding and hope. But like most complex problems, treating a symptom – in this case catching bin Laden – does nothing to cure the root cause. And it will take more than a declaration of “Mission Accomplished” to change the hearts and minds of the rest of the world.

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