Amid the spectacle of cheering crowds in celebration of the death of a man who himself murdered thousands of Americans, World Trade Center survivor Harry Waizer spoke best for me. “I just can’t find it in me to be glad one more person is dead, even if it is Osama bin Laden.”
But if I had to add something, I would say that I can’t find it in me to consider this as meaningful a development as the world finds it. I believe that the operation itself, spanning a decade, was a triumph of intelligence gathering, police work and careful planning, and that ought to be admired, though not celebrated as a shining example that “America can do whatever we set our mind to.” Hopefully we can set our sights higher than killing an enemy in the future. What we can say is that a decade of war brought us no closer to this stated goal to bring bin Laden to account.
The fact that bin Laden had a large mansion specially built in the affluent city of Abbottabad in Pakistan, the home of the Pakistan Military Academy, and that he stayed there for years without being disturbed, is the most significant part of this drama, to me. Though President Obama tried to stress that he worked with Pakistani allies on the operation, it really doesn’t seem like it, and nobody has answered why the world’s most wanted fugitive could chill for so long in a giant compound in the middle of Pakistan, rather than hide away in a cave.
The reason I say that it wasn’t a meaningful development, other than the visceral, psychic value (which we saw in the outpouring of emotion in Washington and New York City last night), is that US policy is unlikely to change. The White House background briefing did state that “the death of bin Laden puts al-Qaida on a path of decline that will be difficult to reverse,” and I think that’s true. Terrorism expert Peter Bergen last night called it “the end of the war on terror.” But this event fragments and decentralizes something that was already fragmented and decentralized. And notice that it didn’t take long for the official warnings and calls for vigilance against a terrorist threat to ensue. I can’t envision any serious policy change that will spring from the death of Osama bin Laden. We’re still going to have a substantial force in Afghanistan. We’re still going to undertake covert operations in Pakistan. We’re still going to try to stick around in Iraq. We’re still going to make everyone in America take off their shoes and belts and have their bodies X-ray scanned before they get on a plane. We’re still going to see executives assert grand powers to keep America safe, perhaps even more so now that secret, covert counter-terrorism actions have proven successful.
And that’s a sad thing. Because this could easily be a turning point in our posture toward national security. We could say that police work and intelligence makes sense as a response to an extremist threat, one which should be kept in balance and not used to terrify the American public into accepting assaults on their civil liberties. We could say that massive military presences as foreign occupiers do not actually make America safe in any meaningful sense. We could say that working with allies to roll up criminal networks has far more value than any drone strike or invasion. We’re not going to say any of it, though the killing of bin Laden could be a natural time to make those statements.
I also have the sense that the bin Laden operation represents something akin to that idiom about fighting the last war. The Muslim world is so very different from where it was on 9/11. The Arab uprisings are far more consequential than bin Laden and Al Qaeda ever were. They herald a new Arab mindset, a desire among young people, downtrodden people, repressed people, to have self-expression and self-governance. They have overthrown two dictators and remade an entire region and they didn’t need Osama bin Laden to do it. Bin Laden was killed on Sunday, but in the eyes of the Arab world circa May 2011, he was already an anachronism.
I do not begrudge anyone, especially those with loved ones who perished on 9/11, the catharsis they may have felt at this action. Maybe if I lived in New York or Washington I would have a similar residual feeling. But from my vantage point, I see another action that will sadly not pull us off the road of the national security state, in a symbolic war that no longer needs to be fought, at least not in the manner in which we have been fighting it. I hope I’m wrong and this does presage a new direction. I hope that, deprived of its leader, Al Qaeda becomes a footnote that can no longer be used as a boogeyman. I hope that, deprived of its cause, wars in Muslim countries are viewed with puzzlement and are seen as unsupportable for much longer. But it doesn’t feel like that.