The message to everyone waiting with bated breath in the White House situation room was terse and to the point: “Geronimo-E KIA”: “Geronimo,” the Enemy, Killed in Action. Really? Osama bin Laden was codenamed “Geronimo?” Even if, as the White House later clarified, that “Geronimo” was the codename for the mission, not the target, the choice is ripe with symbolism that reeks of mid-18th century American imperialism and European American racial privilege.
I know I’m going to hear from the folks who screech at the thought of political correctness overtaking American culture and spoiling pop references that used to be commonly used but now can be offensive. I’m going to hear from people who thought I didn’t have a sense of humor when I got angry that Shaquille O’Neal, or Adam Carolla, or Rosie O’Donnell, or Rush Limbaugh pull out the “ching-chong” routine to mock Asians. I’m going to hear from people who think I’m over-sensitive about “yellowface” in Hollywood (the long and still-going history of white actors playing Asian parts) and the use of Asian stereotypes. I’m going to hear from people who defend racially offensive statements or behavior as OK because it wasn’t “meant” to offend — therefore leading to the non-apology apology that blames those who are offended for taking it wrong.
The fact is, if something is offensive to someone, it’s offensive. Period. It’s not about the motivation, or the intent. It’s about the impact.
And the impact of the U.S. military’s use of “Geronimo” — either as the codename for Osama bib Laden, or the codename of the mission that took bin Laden out — is definitely negative in the Native American community.
The Indian Country Today Media Network explains the issue succintly in its story, ““>Bin Laden Code-name ‘Geronimo’ is a Bomb in Indian Country“:
As news of bin Ladenâ€™s death spread relief across America and the world, revelations that the assigned code name of Enemy Number One was â€œGeronimo,â€ a legendary Apache leader, caused shock waves in Indian communities across the country. It is being interpreted as a slap in the face of Native people, a disturbing message that equates an iconic symbol of Native American pride with the most hated evildoer since Adolf Hitler.
Potentially the most disturbing fact is what this says to American Indian children. It equates being Native American with being hated, an enemy to the world, and someone to be hunted down and killed, and re-casts one of their heroes into a villainous role
Geronimo was an Apache military leader who battled Mexico and the United States in the 1800s until he was captured in 1886, and died in captivity of pneumonia at a ripe old age in 1909. He’s the best-known Indian figure to most Americans, and his history is revered by Native Americans.
I’ve been trading comments on my Facebook wall from posting a link to the Indian Country Today story, with Ed Ward, a smart guy and a writer whom I’ve known for a couple of decades and whose work as a music critic I’ve admired for four decades.
“This is so widely misunderstood. “Geronimo” is military talk for “here we go.” Has been ever since paratroopers were jumping out of planes in WW II. This ranks up with the idiocy over “niggardly” as a waste of smart people’s time,” Ed wrote.
I responded: “I think “niggardly” is different because it’s a different word that’s being confused. But no matter how it’s spun (from a white historical perspective) the use of “Geronimo” in this context is inappropriate. It might reflect US military respect for the Indian leader, or it might be a commonly used military term for “here we go.” It doesn’t matter — if Native Americans receive it as a taunt against the target of a military assassination, then it’s a poor choice of a codename.”
Ed then countered that the name is used as a battle cry, and said, “Nobody’s taunting anyone, and it’s not a code-name.”
My point, Ed, is that no matter the intent or motivation, if the impact is that native Americans are offended, it was a poor choice. I hear all the time when I blog about someone’s offensive statement about Asians, that I don’t have a sense of humor, or that I need to lighten up because the statement wasn’t meant to offend. But that doesn’t mitigate the fact that I –and other Asians and Asian Americans — are offended by it.
The privilege of being Caucasian and the majority culture is that you don’t have to give these issues any thought, and you find it surprising or a reflection of mere political correctness if someone of color is offended by something. The issue isn’t really how the military uses “Geronimo” or the context in which it was used for this mission, but the fact that it was used at all. If Indians take it as a taunt against bi Laden, then the net result is that it’s a taunt.
Why do we use it, anyway? Why don’t we say “MacArthur!” when we go into battle, or “Napoleon!”? I think at its root, it’s still a reflection of historically mainstream white American views of Native Americans as “noble savages.” I think it’s both a statement of still-extant American fear of this Indian leader and his power, and of the relief that in the end, “we got him.”
Ed offered a link to the Wikipedia page about the use of the name “Geronimo,” and like many children, I used to yell “Geronimo!” when leaping during play when I was a kid. But I wouldn’t use it now. Maybe I would if I were a skydiver, but even if it’s common usage in that context, the Navy SEALs who killed bin Laden weren’t parachuting in to the compound, and in this context, it sure seems to me to be a poor choice of codeword, whether it’s for the mission or the man himself.
I think Indians have a right to be upset. It’s not about political correctness. It’s about looking at issues from the perspective of other people, and admitting that promoting any link between the most famous Native American military leader and the world’s most hated terrorist was a dumb idea.
Update: My cousin Eric Sasaki, who’s a cool-headed dude, points out (and found a lik to a UK Telegraph story that explains) that Geronimo was used for bin Laden not because of the negative aspects of bin Laden’s terrorism, but his uncanny ability to elude capture — a knack that Geronimo was well-known for.
I agree that as a tribute (in a twisted way), an appropriate comparison, but it’s still an unfortunate choice since Native Americans are increasingly up in arms about it, and starting to demand an apology. Here are some links to stories about the reaction from the Native American community:
Susan Powers’ Facebook Note: With Apologies to Geronimo
American Indians in Children’s Literature: FAIL: Codename for Osama bin Laden? “Geronimo”
Detroit Free Press: Metro Detroit’s American Indians angry over use of ‘Geronimo’ code name
Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy blog: Osama Bin Laden Was No Geronimo
And a British perspective: Encoded in Geronimo’s name: enemy
Here’s the Native American Journalist Association’s statement about the issue.