My radio went off at 6:00 AM today, as it always does, and the top story on WCBS was that Osama Bin Laden, mastermind of the September 11th attacks and the world’s most influential terrorist, was dead. It jarred me, as I suppose only news of that magnitude can. I was certainly more awake at 6:02 today than I usually am. I immediately turned on the television, flipping through all the major morning news shows. Half an hour later, after getting whatever facts were made available, I have to admit that I was feeling a number of mixed emotions, but relief was not among them.
There are the obvious positive ramifications of Bin Laden’s elimination. The Al Qaeda network is now without its rallying figurehead. The American military has demonstrated its unwavering commitment to the completion of a key objective. The friends and families of those lost nearly ten years ago, and those lost in the wars that followed, can embrace some sense of justice and vindication for having lived with their pain for so long. Yet even as someone who knows people widowed or left fatherless on September 11th, and who has friends and family who felt the call of duty and enlisted in the aftermath, I don’t feel the urge to celebrate Bin Laden’s death. At least, not in the way that I’ve seen people celebrating on the news.
To be perfectly honest, when I saw throngs of people in city streets, waving flags and cheering, the only thing that jumped to mind were images of people in destitute Middle Eastern cities, who had the very same reaction upon hearing the news of the deadly attack on America ten years ago.
I’m not trying to lump people into groups here, or draw unflattering parallels. I’m just telling you the connections my mind has made. Even though he was a mass-murdering sociopath, the prolonged and public reveling in someone’s death just seems, to me, a little…primitive.
In most situations, I would be among the loudest voices advocating that cruelty deserves cruelty. I mean, if you ask me, there’s been no greater legal philosopher than Hammurabi. An eye for an eye, and all that. Being shot in the head and dumped into the sea was a quicker and cleaner exit than Osama Bin Laden truly deserved. So why the ambivalence?
I think it’s because we’ve been dealt this hand before. American forces captured Saddam Hussein in Iraq in December 2003. He was tried in an Iraqi military court, convicted of war crimes against his own people, and finally executed in December 2006. Saddam’s capture itself came eight months after President Bush’s infamous declaration of “Mission Accomplished”. And yet, it was only in August 2010 that the majority of combat troops left Iraq. We still have people on the ground there, just not in such a bellicose capacity. My point is that the death of Saddam Hussein–who, while never conclusively proven to be party to Bin Laden’s plots, was hardly a friend to America–did not end the Iraqi resistance to American forces. The war in Iraq continues. Will the death of Bin Laden really change the game in Afghanistan?
I think this further bolsters my opinion that, contrary to what I have heard a number of people on television say, this event is not remotely as decisive or definitive as V-E or V-J Day. Sure, it’s a tremendous accomplishment toward making the world a safer place, but Osama Bin Laden was not the leader of a country with clearly defined borders with a national military upon which the United States declared war. There will be no official surrender, no signing of a treaty in neutral territory. As the president himself has already acknowledged, the war will continue. The Al Qaeda network still spans the globe, and while its members might be shaken, the most devout among them will not be deterred.
The question now is, how will the war proceed? Will there be a final surge in activity to catch Al Qaeda off-guard before the president’s proposed draw-down of troops in Afghanistan begins? What work will those operatives still in Iraq be charged with? How, if at all, is our allied engagement in Libya going to be effected? The biggest unknown, I think, is what tone the United States is going to set for its continued relationship with Pakistan.
Osama Bin Laden was not found in a cave in the Afghan mountains, subsisting on rations and using leaves for toilet paper. He was found in a three-story, gated estate in the city of Abbotabad, less than 100 miles from the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. Furthermore, President Obama said intelligence regarding this hideaway had started to come from sources almost nine months ago. Think about that. Imagine if Churchill and De Gaulle had said to Franklin Roosevelt in 1941, “You gotta help us find Hitler!”, and then in 1945, FDR said, “Oh, hey guys. Guess what? He’s been in Baltimore the whole time.”
Pakistan has professed to be an ally in our War on Terror, but President Obama acknowledged that the mission to apprehend Bin Laden was carried out without the knowledge, cooperation, or approval of the Pakistani government or military. Now, it might not be easy, given that Pakistan is a nuclear power with unpopular and unstable leadership, but I think some difficult questions need to be asked.
Perhaps I’ll change my tune in the coming days. Being a history dork, and understanding the magnitude of this event, I wanted to record my initial thoughts and reactions. I hope it really is a turning point. I hope our men and women in uniform can begin to return from harm’s way. I hope our political and military leadership can restructure their policies in a smart, anticipatory, and responsible way. And I hope that for those who have lost loved ones due to the direct or retaliatory actions of Osama Bin Laden that the burden they carry is a little lighter today.