A look back at the time when WWE announced Osama bin Laden’s death at a live show

Greg Evans
Saturday 01 May 2021 13:04
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In the early hours of 2nd May 2011, US navy SEALS killed the leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden at his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Nearly ten years after the 9/11 attacks, in which bin Laden played an instrumental role, a worldwide manhunt came to an end as the United States finally apprehended the man that had evaded them for so long. President Barack Obama watched the siege happen back in the White House Situation Room and triumphantly announced Bin Laden’s death on live television shortly afterwards and a sense of patriotic euphoria swept the nation.

Meanwhile, 10,000 people at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, Florida and around 200,000 at home on pay-per-view watched WWE Extreme Rules, many of them blissfully unaware of the historic event that had just happened on the other side of the planet.

Even though it was only 10 years ago, this was still before smartphones and social media were widespread.

The history-making piece of breaking news would have been a mystery to a lot of those watching in the arena, who had just witnessed John Cena win his tenth WWE championship defeating The Miz and John Morrison in a steel cage match.

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As is the custom at wrestling shows, when the cameras have gone off the air, the triumphant wrestler who is standing tall at the end addresses the crowd with a rousing go-home speech and thanks them for showing their support. However, on this night Cena did something different.

He said: “I walk out here every night with hustle loyalty and respect on my sleeve. That is a credo that I have adopted from the men and women who defend the freedom of this country. The president has just announced that we have caught and compromised to a permanent end Osama bin Laden. This is something tonight but I feel damn proud to be an American.”

That’s how the 10,000 people in the arena heard that Bin Laden had been killed. Not from a breaking news alert or from CNN, BBC or Fox News but from a sweaty topless wrestler standing on top of a table holding a gold championship belt.

One person who was there on that night was author Saurav Dutt, who described the atmosphere in the arena at that moment as "simply electric." Audible 'USA' chants began almost immediately but according to Dutt not everyone was celebrating.

"The USA chants began almost immediately and were deafening. There was a clear joy in seeing the show going on and this being acknowledged. At the same time, this is WWE so the crowd was quite segmented, around me some people were openly disdainful that was evoking the military so much as if he had past involvement in the military.

“There was also a stunned silence in that death was being celebrated so fervently, and then there were others that were in tears. Some of those who clearly weren't Cena marks were booing him when he walked around slapping hands, I heard some voices that were angry that in a way he seemed to be taking credit for it."

Dutt adds: "However overall the reaction was almost supernatural, the USA chants were eardrum shattering and continued as the crowd exited the venue and there was a real sense of being in the moment, that we were hearing this and sharing it with the WWE at the same time."

Did the jubilation transpire on television or was it a prime example of American patriotism gone too far? Over here in the UK Will Cooling, journalist for PW Torch tells me: “Given how traumatic 9/11 had been to America, and indeed the world, it’s perfectly reasonable to celebrate his death, if a bit ghoulish. That indeed was the reaction of most of America, with the then vice-president Biden summarising the reasons for re-electing President Obama as, “Bin Laden Is Dead and General Motors Is Alive”. I’m not sure how much it was celebrating American values beyond promoting affection to the US military, something that is relatively uncontroversial, given it’s often voted the most trusted institution in American society. “

As Cena said, it was quite ‘something’ and in a rare move, WWE actually chose to broadcast the speech the following day on their weekly Monday night programme Raw. The speech was soon shared on the WWE YouTube channel where it has been viewed more than 2 million times.

The speech has gone down in wrestling infamy as perhaps one of the most overtly patriotic things the WWE has ever done. It should be remembered that this is a company that doesn't shy away from how proud it is of the US military. Every year since 2003 they have held an annual event called Tribute to the Troops in front of US armed forces as a mark of respect and gratitude.

WWE had also used Middle Eastern politics and conflicts in the region and to tell its stories. In 1991, the main event of Wrestlemania 7 utilised the Gulf War in the battle between All-American hero Hulk Hogan and Iraqi sympathizer Sgt Slaughter. Fast forward to 2005, a top heel in the company was Islamic fundamentalist Muhammad Hassan who spoke out against Islamophobia but the gimmick was quickly dropped following the London Bombings of that year.

Directly after the 9/11 attacks, WWE paid tribute to the victims and first responders on that fateful day in New York City in an emotional episode of Smackdown, which was believed to be the largest gathering since the tragedy.

These examples show - both the good and the bad - show that WWE can present a sensitive news story in their own unique blend of theatre and combat, but Cena's speech falls somewhere in the middle.

In a 2012 interview with WWE.com, Cena stated that he had heard the news from a cameraman at the event but felt it was the "right thing to do." The wrestler, who is now making waves in Hollywood said: "The only thing I felt in that moment was the need to tell everyone in the arena because as an American it was the right thing to do. I realize a lot of people heard it for the first time from me, but I’d like to think that if anyone had been in my shoes, they would have done the same exact thing."

In the actual moment, Dutt adds that although he was glad to hear the news he also didn’t realise what that meant until he heard the USA chants which might have struck the wrong tone on television. ”They were loud, defiant, constant, and I began to feel a bit uncomfortable, realising that this hyper-nationalism felt very odd in a WWE environment. From immediate satisfaction at knowing American (and other) lives had been avenged, I began to feel like I was at a North Korea propaganda event and it reminded me of all the odd times that USA chants have come up from crowds at distinctly uncomfortable times e.g. if the heel was not a US national.”

Indeed the moment almost felt like it had come out of the blue as WWE hadn’t leaned into politics that strongly since 9/11. Although some clearly liked it others found it a bit cringe and odd, especially Cena’s choice of words.

The use of the phrase 'caught and compromised to a permanent end' has since been entered into the Urban Dictionary and at the time John Oliver called it "linguistically sensational" and joked that it should have been borrowed by Obama. It’s practically become a surreal meme in its own right but even at the time, Dutt felt Cena’s words struck an odd tone. “I thought then and now that the language he used was cringe-worthy but at the same time the reaction being so completely American. I know the promo was to get the crowd going and getting a pop but I think now that celebrating death ten years after 9/11 felt a little empty. If anything I disliked the language and would have preferred straightforward language, but I know that’s more militaristic.”

Perhaps wrestling and politics and current events shouldn't mix and in 2021 that's more unlikely to happen than ever. WWE has expanded itself significantly since this moment and now has ties all over the globe, including Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Bin Laden, a move that has its own political complexities. More often than not WWE now presents itself as an escapist form of scripted entertainment and has barely even mentioned the coronavirus pandemic, despite the fact that their wrestlers have been competing in front of an empty arena for more than a year now. The company also rarely mentioned Donald Trump during his presidency despite being a close friend of McMahon’s and a member of their Hall of Fame.

Cooling feels that this change has been brought about by the company wishing to reflect the overall viewpoint of their younger fanbase without rocking the boat too much. “I think what’s changed is the perceptions of America amongst young people – both within America and overseas. The liberal skew of young people on issues such as race, gender and sexuality has changed what they expect of the products they consume which is why companies such as Nike and Disney are so keen to be seen as champions of social justice.

“Vince McMahon (like much of his audience), is an old white conservative, but WWE knows that the future of his company rests on reaching that younger audience hence the growing acceptance of gender and racial diversity with regards to the performers WWE is willing to push. And I think WWE’s willingness to embrace American patriotism or express conservative viewpoints is likewise regulated by the attitudes of its younger American fan base – they knew people disliked president Trump, so they kept very quiet about McMahon’s long association with him. If there was a moment like the killing of Osama Bin Laden or before that with the 9/11 attacks, that stirred patriotic feelings amongst Americans of all kinds, I’m sure they would look to amplify it. Of course, given how polarised American politics is at the moment, that’s unlikely to happen any time soon.”

With this in mind, Dutt still feels that WWE should reference current events on the television shows but much like Cooling, agrees the climate is no longer right for it. “I don’t think they would because of a more politically correct climate and the inevitable tweet storms and bad PR that might come out of it, those easily offended would feel the comment would be too jingoistic, hyper national, potentially even Islamophobic and warmongering. Had it occurred while Trump was still in charge would have been seen as populist and even inspiring greater military activity against persons of colour - in short the ramifications could have been much more severe!”

In an ideal world could politics and wrestling eventually mix to a point where a wrestler announcing the death of a significant figure at a live event isn’t as jarring as it would appear? Cooling thinks so but it takes the right tone and execution to pull it off.

“Not to sound too Marxist but any form of simulated fighting is tailor-made to reflect a clash of ideas, interests and individuals that is at the root of all politics.

“The problem with today’s televised product is that it is so tightly scripted and packaged, that no major American promotion could explore an issue without making it clear which idea they think is good and which they think is bad. This then risks the side they pick to be represented by the “heel” will be unfairly presented, and that this will then annoy fans who believe in the idea.

“So it’s not something to be done lightly, but done well, the bad guy can speak about issues such as Canadian patriotism or environmentalism in a way that suitably annoys the bulk of fans whilst entertaining those who agree with them. That actually adds to the escapism and makes pro wrestling relevant to people.”

The world has changed in so many different aspects since 2011 that it is hard to even see what foundations were even in place before. 10 years on from Bin Laden’s death and there is still rampant Islamophobia and a very real threat of terrorism in the air which Bin Laden’s death evidently did not solve.

As for WWE, it might never revert to doing something like announcing a major death on one of its shows ever again but Cena’s speech on that night remains one of its most polarising moments so much so that is still talked about a decade later.

Will Cooling is a journalist for PW Torch. You can find more of his work on his Substack including his report on the All Party Parliamentary Group on Wrestling.

Saurav Dutt is an author, political analyst and human rights campaigner whose work is available via Amazon.

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