Essay: Villains or Heroes

January 14, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: For months, America has been searching for Osama bin Laden– dropping bombs on Afghan caves, offering a sultan’s treasure to peasants in exchange for leads as to his whereabouts. But no one from this crowd of faces has claimed the reward, and I am reminded of a 19th century Mexican cowboy in California named Joaquin Murrieta and the way some persons in history survive their own death.

Depictions of Joaquin Murrieta sometimes imagine a man who is light-skinned, sometimes dark. He has green eyes; he is tall. He is short; he has brown eyes. According to cowboy pulp fiction and Mexican legend and the memory of frail, old men, Joaquin Murrieta came to California in the 1850s, during the California gold rush. Like many other Latin American miners, Joaquin Murrieta got chased off his claim by Americans. Later, his wife or his mistress was raped by American miners. Then the good man turned bad, depending on your point of view. Joaquin became a Robin Hood or a cutthroat villain. So uncertain were sheriffs of the man they were looking for, posters around California merely shouted, “wanted: The bandit Joaquin.”

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I don’t care, dead or alive, either way.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: According to “Bush at War,” Bob Woodward’s book about life in the White House after September 11, counterterrorist agents promised President Bush the head of Osama bin Laden in a box, a bellicose promise that reverts to fairy tale or to nightmare. All these months later, we are taunted by videotaped images of this tall, elegant man in his white robes, his serene gaze, his dark, fathomless eyes. A hauntingly refined voice was recently broadcast by the al-Jazeera Arabic network. Technicians in Washington with their earphones and knobs were 90 percent certain that the voice was Osama’s. Technicians in Switzerland were 90 percent certain that it was not.

More important than whether or not the tape was authentic was the way the voice attached itself to bombings in Yemen and Bali and Moscow, and taunted the Israelis and their allies. Clearly the man on the tape wants to cast himself as more than himself, as more than a rich, petulant Saudi in conflict with the royals of Riyadh. Think of the moment in the movie “Spartacus.” Roman authorities are searching for a gladiator-turned-rebel. Then one man after another assumes the rebel’s identity.

ACTOR: I’m Spartacus.

ACTOR: I’m Spartacus.

ACTOR: I’m Spartacus.

ACTOR: I’m Spartacus.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: The crowd becomes Spartacus. Today there are children named for Osama, and his life is sung, and his face is hoisted on placards, on billboards– a figure of high romance for millions of people, even while we americans see only the villain. Villain or hero? A historical figure ascends to myth when his life matches some common pride or grievance or sorrow. Then history is subsumed into myth. Spartacus, Joaquin, Che, Gandhi, Osama. America’s search for Osama bin Laden in these mountain passes and crowded bazaars may be necessary militarily and for reasons of vengeance and justice and national pride, but it may also be beside the point. Dead or alive, Osama bin Laden already is mythic. The grievances of millions of people in the Middle East are joined to his name, and his name surely will outlast his death.

Some will think I dishonor the memory of a Mexican cowboy in California named Joaquin Murrieta by remembering him in the same sentence with Osama bin Laden. But my subject is myth, the way history turns into myth. In California, there are Mexican restaurants and bars named for Joaquin Murrieta. There are rock formations and caves and ridges named in his honor. There are probably children. The long resentments of Mexicans in America have invoked his myth. And look behind me. Here, on the edge of the Berkeley campus of the University of California: A building named in honor of a Mexican cowboy about whom almost nothing exactly is known. I’m Richard Rodriguez.