Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Barbara Katz Rothman

Committee Members

James M. Jasper

Thomas DeGloma

Marie-Helen Maras

Subject Categories

American Politics | Gender and Sexuality | Politics and Social Change | Race and Ethnicity | Sociology | Sociology of Culture


bin laden, terrorism, Navy SEALs, structural hermeneutics, media, dramaturgy


This study examines the American “authorized discourse” about the hunt for and killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden to better understand it as an episode in American cultural hegemony maintenance. Through a structural hermeneutic analysis of presidential speeches and widely-circulated national strategy documents, high distribution news coverage, and entertainment media, alongside one-on-one interviews and focus groups, I illuminate the symbolic mechanics by which the death of Osama bin Laden was constructed as righteous and legitimate retaliatory violence in response to the unprompted, offensive violence of the 9/11 attacks.

Drawing on an array of theoretical approaches including classical sociologists Karl Marx, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Marxist thinkers such as Antonio Gramsci and Edward Sa’id, strong program cultural sociologists such as Jeffrey Alexander and Philip Smith, as well as the work of critical race and feminist scholars, I retell the story and analyze its plot and characters, attending especially to the gendered and racialized cultural underpinnings, placing it historically and within the media landscape.

This research demonstrates that the dominant narrative presents bin Laden’s death as resolution of a melodramatic plot where moral heroes, in the name of innocent victims, eliminated the evil villain. This case offers one example of the unrelenting cultural work undertaken by hegemonic agents to reconcile America’s self-professed commitment to democracy, freedom, and equality, with the legacies of genocide, settler colonialism, slavery, and empire. The dissertation concludes with ideas for future research tying the findings and observations about this case to special forces operations more broadly, mass shootings and gun fundamentalism, and mass detentions and deportations.