Did you ever hear the one about the man who smashed a herd of elephants into two skyscrapers? Or the one about the man who flew a fleet of aircraft through the Alps over two millennia ago?
Of course you didn’t, because these are two impossible actions. If we do a little switch around though and talk about the man who flew commercial aircraft into some of the most iconic buildings in history and the man who marched a herd of elephants across a huge frozen mountain range, one immediately knows what and who we are discussing.
The people of Rome and the United States had not considered these feats in advance, as daring, destructive and outrageous as they were. The hours upon hours of amateur video footage from downtown Manhattan on the morning of 9/11 shows people – most of them suited up and commuting to work – standing there watching, trying to figure out the fleetness of events in the world that was now surrounding them; trying to get information while trying to avoid getting information, simply because the reality was so utterly shocking. The most natural reaction – standing with a gaping open mouth – was the most telling.
Bringing elephants over the Alps was not so much a military manoeuvre as it was a propaganda one; it is often forgotten that most of the animals perished on the journey. It did, however, create an aura of invincibility around the man who made it happen and, perhaps for the first time, a national feeling of weakness in Rome. What Hannibal and Osama Bin Laden did was find their enemy’s kryptonite, but that is just the beginning of the extraordinary similarity in their stories.
The Roman Senate rallied after the disastrous battle of Cannae and appointed a dictator (under the Republican constitution, temporary dictators could be appointed in times of national emergency), Fabius Maximus, while the American public gave a massive boost to President George W. Bush’s approval ratings and a renewed mandate in 2004. Both of these mandates were given largely for those leaders to go after public enemy number one: for the Romans, Hannibal; for the Americans, Bin Laden.
Hannibal was in Italy for 15 years. After a series of early victories – leaving parts of the peninsula mass graves of Roman bodies – his campaign stagnated, resulting in retreat. Bin Laden did not personally invade U.S. territory so much as occupy the public consciousness and define American foreign policy around him for a decade. Both men loved being wanted, perhaps even hated, and both became not just political and military leaders, but also brand names.
Death was always so close. Imagine knowing that, of all the people in the world, you are most likely the person who most people would wish departed. The remarkable thing was how they managed to hang around for so long and, perhaps more astonishingly, how surprised people were when news got to them that their nemesis or hero was no more.
Rome believed that the war against Hannibal and the war against Carthage were one and the same thing – kill the man and you kill his quest – and in the early months of the Bush administration, the public relations campaign focused on that same idea. “We’re gonna smoke him out,” said the President. After Hannibal’s death it took half a century for Rome to finally win the war against Carthage, and any U.S. government, present or future, should note that.
Two men from the other side of the (known) world, living over two millennia apart, attacked a rising superpower where it did not think it might be attacked, in doing so creating a new kind of nationalism whereby the enemy united around their government and retaliated by going to the other side of the world to wage war. A bounty on both their heads and their faces and names etched into the consciousness of one and all. The assignment of blame for complex organised actions ultimately was placed upon one individual, and the initial aim of war was to get that individual, dead or alive. When they were found, it was someplace in the East and they were shown to be vain, paranoid, and ultimately human.