Does anyone else keep getting the eerie feeling that generations to come may look back on the times we’re living in now and feel aghast? Crippled by insomnia, I stay up all night thinking that I hear someone laughing in the next room. Osama Bin Laden is dead. Shot in the eye by a U.S. Navy Seal. When president Obama declared this on live television, a seismic shock rippled across the borders of the world.
In the United States the assassination was celebrated with exuberant joy. As the dust has settled over the past month and a half, there is now a need to ask if this act was really cause for celebration. I think it was not. Let me explain why, and we’ll see if you agree.
A day after the news broke, Robert Fisk wrote an article in The Independent (“Was he Betrayed?…”, 3 May 2011) where he pointed out that, at the time of his death, Bin Laden’s political influence was, for all intensive purposes, null and void: “the mass revolutions in the Arab world over the past four months mean that al-Qa’ida was already politically dead.” Osama Bin Laden, the most wanted man in the United States, was “a middle-aged nonentity, a political failure outstripped by history – by the millions of Arabs demanding freedom and democracy in the Middle East.”
On the day this Osama Doe was finally put to death (a day we all were expecting to come eventually), “the world went mad,” says Fisk: “The Americans were drunk with joy. David Cameron thought it ‘a massive step forward’. India described it as a ‘victorious milestone’. ‘A resounding triumph,’ Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu boasted. But after 3,000 Americans dead on 9/11, countless more in the Middle East, up to half a million Muslims dead in Iraq and Afghanistan and 10 years trying to find Bin Laden, pray let us have no more ‘resounding triumphs.’” Even though they are difficult to formulate and their responses, disconcerting, it is crucial I think to raise questions at times like these: Could the reaction to Bin Laden’s death possess a richer meaning than the decision to do the deed? Why was America so drunk with joy to hear that Bin Laden had been killed? Are we sure that we haven’t just guillotined a cadaver? What was the price of killing this enemy?
My suspicion is that the United States was in dire need of something to rally around as a nation, in order to at least momentarily remember what it feels like to reconcile differences and feel united again. Obama was likely keen to this, and his timing, convenient, as he gears up for the 2012 elections. But, there is something more to this atmosphere of celebration, something that Dan Carlin recently brought to our attention in an episode of Common Sense titled “Pyrrhic Schadenfreude” (2 May 2011). As CNN was transmitting images of a crowd chanting in front of the White House, Carlin was thinking to himself, “While it was understandable that people would be jubilant, I wasn’t not sure that these people in the crowd who were so jubilant understood exactly what this guy had done to us. I’m not sure it’s a triumph sort of period. It’s sort of like a pyrrhic victory.”
Perhaps Bin Laden had become a non-entity in the context of geopolitics, but in the context of U.S foreign and domestic policy, his legacy lives on, not in the sense that his cronies are embedded in the U.S. strategizing their next terrorist plot, but in the sense that his actions have affected and continue to affect the way we look at ourselves, at each other, at the world (not to mention all that we are willing to sacrifice in the name of combating the threat that his legacy poses). Carlin offers a precise metaphor for the U.S. reaction to the death of Bin Laden: “He came and stabbed us in the back and gave us a potentially mortal wound, where we could bleed to death very easily. We turned around and killed him and then we laughed in his face. I’m not so sure he would be upset with the results. I think this guy got exactly what he wanted, every step of the way… And we’re living with the ramifications and I don’t think they’re positive, and people are chanting USA! USA!… It’s almost like they don’t know how bad the wound is that’s bleeding from our back” (ibid.).
And Fisk, who had personally interviewed Bin Laden several times, corroborates Carlin’s suspicion: “In the years after 2001,” Fisk sent Bin Laden “a list of 12 questions, the first of which was obvious: what kind of victory could he claim when his actions resulted in the US occupation of two Muslim countries? There was no reply for weeks. Then one weekend, waiting to give a lecture in Saint Louis in the US, I was told that Al Jazeera had produced a new audiotape from Bin Laden. And one by one – without mentioning me – he answered my 12 questions. And yes, he wanted the Americans to come to the Muslim world – so he could destroy them” (Fisk, ibid.).
It is a strange question to ask, but it needs to be asked: If the U.S. government has played right into Bin Laden’s hand, then what is there to celebrate? Does anyone think Bin Laden did not wish to be a martyr? The U.S. is overextended economically, fighting long and discombobulated wars, and the Judicial branch has had to “reinterpret” the constitution (this interpretation, of course, being classified) in order to sustain the legality of Executive branch’s so-called ‘security measures’. Perhaps it is hyperbole to say that the US has been destroyed (as Bin Laden had wanted), but the integrity of our constitutional rights seems less and less important to government officials and citizens alike.
What’s more, certain processes of destruction do not happen in the blink of an eye (like the 9/11 attacks), but are long, drawn out and sometimes hard to notice. The destruction of a building brought down by a wrecking ball is fast, loud, tremendous, dramatic. The destruction of a building that has fallen into decay (because it lacks maintenance or prohibits maintenance) is much less likely to appear as a threat at all, since from the outside the building continues to project the appearance of stability and security, even while it’s rotting at its core, in its foundation.
The videos that Bin Laden produced over the years are likely to haunt us through the decades to come. In those videos, as Carlin recalls, “one thing he said was that the attacks would have an effect all out of proportion to the damage done, because they were directed at a country that hadn’t seen war on its soil in 100 years. He had talked about how, if you blow up a building in a country that’s used to having bombs explode, it’s not that big of a deal; if you do it in a tranquil, peaceful place that hasn’t known war, the place is likely to freak out. The place freaked out” (ibid.). Now, a month and a half after Bin Laden’s death and the fiestas patrias that followed it, the nation is, if not still freaking out, then at least zombified to the matter.
To imagine where the U.S. would be as a country, had the 9/11 attacks not taken place, had the U.S. military not sent ground troops to Iraq or Afghanistan, is to envision a world without Bin Laden. It is an tantalizing dream, but it is only a dream, our reality is here, in this crisis that is painful to accept as our own. Bin Laden has impacted U.S. foreign and domestic policy more dramatically than any individual legislator in the United States, and this impact, as the prognosis suggests, is shocking. “We’re dealing with amazing amounts of security, when judged by pre-9/11 standards: who’s responsible for that? That’s that knife-wound in the back, folks, continuing to bleed long after we’ve cut Osama’s head off. You want to pick it up and laugh at it? It might laugh back” (Carlin, ibid.).
Does anyone else find it hard to understand why we would celebrate the death of the single most wanted terrorist? Is it not within us to celebrate an achievement in international politics that guarantees everyone the possibility of a better coexistence without the threat of terrorism? The jubilance in response Bin Laden’s death is a clear indicator that what is being celebrated here is something ephemeral, dislocated from the origins of the problem. Did the capture of Abimael Guzman put an end to terrorism? Will the death of Bin Laden guarantee a terror-free world? It’s not very likely, as long as we continue to skirt the central problem: How can we coexist in a peaceful and civilized way, recognizing that we are part of both the problem and the solution? I hope that one day we can celebrate great peace accords between many people, instead of the death of one individual. Between now and then, let peaceful reflection be our guide.
By Joseph Mulligan
[This article was cross-posted at Daily Kos, June 14, 2011]