Osama bin Laden’s code name during the recent operation designed to kill him was “Geronimo.” There is a history of cheeky code names that our elite forces use in their operations. President Obama’s secret service code name, for example, is (or was) “Renegade.” Fidel Castro was “AMTHUG” to the CIA during the various, often whimsical schemes to kill him. (AM was the code name for Cuba.) The list goes on. NPR reports that some Native American groups were offended by the use of Geronimo’s name in connection with Osama bin Laden—or in connection with the operation in which he was killed—but in their respective times each occupied the role of boogeyman in the American imagination. Che Guevara is another figure who briefly filled this role. The code name Geronimo, though impolitic and perhaps insensitive at this point in history, was perfectly apt.

Geronimo was a war leader of the Apaches, not a chief, and “Geronimo” was not his name but rather a nickname given to him by the Mexicans. (Most of his activity and animosity was always directed at Mexico.) Among his own people he was called Goyahkla, the One Who Yawns. The Chiricahua Apaches were under persistent, even genocidal pressure from both the U.S. and Mexican governments (and previously, the Confederate government) as the last wild areas of the continental United States were brought to heel.

Geronimo pillaged and killed, and used terror as a weapon, and was hated and feared and reviled in the U.S. media and popular imagination. There was outrage over his audacity and the crimes he committed. He is famous because he was active until a startlingly late date, 1886, when the West was already won. He was eventually captured, domesticated, and paraded around Wild West shows, where, we can imagine, parents pointed to him and told their children he would get them if they were bad. He died in captivity in Fort Sill, Oklahoma in 1909. Nowadays his name, and that of the Apaches holds no fear, but rather the opposite: understanding, empathy, compassion. We understand the pressure Geronimo faced as a vice was relentlessly closed on his people. In a hundred years, or more, or less, will the name Osama bin Laden be spoken of the same way?

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