Osama bin Laden’s Death: Reflections and Considerations

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What will be the historical significance of the killing of Osama bin Laden?

            At this point, the long-term significance is somewhat small. Islamists are with us to stay. Even Osama bin Laden had died at Tora Bora, he established that Islamists could fight the “far enemy.” The Iraq War (or Iraq Attack) proved that the far enemy could be provoked to take reckless and counterproductive actions.

            Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda established that Islamists could use asymmetric warfare on a global scale. The US economy almost ground to a halt in the wake of that attack. What if Al Qaeda had targeted the New York Stock Exchange?  Bin Laden became merely a symbol among radical Islamists, and that a superpower pursued him for a decade thereafter is of more significance than that the superpower finally succeeded.

            Eliminating bin Laden eliminated the center of the network, but that network is not a hierarchical bureaucratic structure, so its peripheries can still reattach themselves. Bin Laden’s vision also lives on. Killing him does not unpublish his fatwa against the United States, nor does it refute the arguments made in that fatwa. In fact, the Arab Spring underscores that the United States supported repressive Arab regimes—the “near enemy” in Islamist parlance—and that only direct action by the populations in those regimes undermined and finally vanquished at least two of them. While it is true that the Arab Spring shows that the Arab street does not have to turn to the Islamist solution to rid itself of autocrats, the US’s support for those regimes remains a sticking point for many actors in the region.

            Unfortunately, the killing of bin Laden may have created a martyr. After all, one man, albeit with the help of a failed state, Afghanistan, and a failing state, Pakistan, escaped the armed might of the United States for nearly a decade, despite several trillion dollars in military expenditures and the application of probably hundreds of thousands of person-hours of work to track him down. It is almost a certainty that a radical Islamist is making the argument that the US really is a paper tiger, unable to maneuver swiftly enough to deal with networked non-state actors. In that way, it is possible that by returning his name to consideration the United States will create imitators. Those who do not fear death cannot be deterred.

            The final pursuit and execution of bin Laden indicates a high degree of resolve on the part of the United States, it also indicates how feckless the putative allies of the United States have been. Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence agency (ISI) has played a cunning and dangerous game in the region and with the United States. After all, the ISI has coordinated with several jihadist groups, including the Kashmiri separatist who staged the extraordinary assault on Mumbai, India in late November of 2008, a coordinated orgy of killing involving maybe ten terrorists who tied down thousands of Indian police and military personnel. The ISI is also implicated in the resurgence of the Afghani Taliban. If Pakistan’s army is a state within a state, the ISI is a high command within that entity. It has sought to achieve via terrorism and guerilla warfare something that Pakistan could never hope to accomplish by force of arms: the detachment of Kashmir from the state of India. An overwhelmingly Muslim region, the ISI has been practicing jihad since before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In fact, the turning of jihad against the West is simply the use of a tool fashioned to fight Hindus and then communists.

            The United States has yet to face up to the distortions of our domestic politics.

            Anti-Muslim hysteria and Islamophobia can be found all over the World Wide Web. The “Ground Zero” mosque controversy is but a tiny illustration. In fact, in the wake of the Serbian war criminal Ratko Mladic, one can find online comments “arguing” that since he killed Muslims his actions were not really crimes (Johnson).

            The damage to the American body politic has been done.

            Civil liberties have been undermined: the PATRIOT Act and warrantless wiretapping should frighten everyone concerned with democratic values and freedom of expression and religion. 

            Torture has been tacitly approved by a country that did not resort to it in World War II, when it actually faced an existential threat; to the extent it may have been used in isolated cased, it was used outside formal lines of authority, not within them.  Torture has even been glorified, as in the terrible television series 24 or in the writing of Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen. Given that the US is a signatory to all of the Geneva Conventions, this is, at a minimum, troubling, and really ought to be regarded as an outright betrayal of American ideals.

             Jingoism has been restored as a cardinal virtue in certain sectors of the political spectrum, and the near indiscriminate bombing of brown people accepted as some kind of transaction cost rather than a horrific abomination (Fisk).

            Only time will tell of the American body politic recovers from the “system perturbation” bin Laden and his minions initiated.

            Osama bin Laden did not invent the use of terrorism as a tactic. Terrorism will live on without him. Suicide bombings did not originate with Al Qaeda or Hamas, for example, but rather with the Tamil Eelam Tigers, a Hindu organization, in their fight against the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. (Actually, the argument can be made that Russian anarchists pioneered the use of suicide bombing as a tactic in the nineteenth century, but it did not become a widespread tactic until after the Tigers started using it in the 1980s; they assassinated Indian parliamentary candidate Rajiv Gandhi in Madras, India, in 1991).

            In a way, to his partisans, the killing of Osama bin Laden represented America’s killing of another revolutionary.

            He is no longer an Islamist Lenin. But perhaps he has become an Islamist Che Guevera.

            We will only know the long-term impact in the long term.

            God help us all.


Written by jjvedamuthu

June 5, 2012 at 17:12

Posted in Uncategorized

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