Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Death of bin Laden

Osama bin Laden is dead.

Is the world a better place?  No, the death of one person hardly changes much.  He was a symbol of resistance.  Exactly how much leading he was doing these days is debatable.  After all, there were no communication links in the compound.  Besides, as terrorist organizations have shown in the past, the death of one leader has simply opened the door for a new one.  

Is the war over?  No.  That’s obvious.  It’s another milestone in the never-ending effort to impose American ideas on a part of the world not interested in them and with no tradition that will allow them to flourish.  We cannot simply pull out; we cannot stay.  All we can do is curse the Bush Administration for putting our soldiers so deeply in this quagmire that the death of one opponent seems like a victory.

We can’t win anyway. There’s no way to define winning in such a situation.  It’s definitely not winning if Iraq and Afghanistan become democracies. They don’t have our history or philosophical underpinning that has helped our democracy endure more than 200 years.  As it is, we’re still struggling.  The neo-Nazis, the church demonstrating at the burials of soldiers killed in our wars, the anti-gay attacks and the like demonstrate how hate groups still tear at the fabric of our society.

Is terrorism ended?  No.  The terrorists aren’t going away.  To their countrymen, they are patriots who are defending a way of life and their faith. Besides, their culture takes different view of reacting to outrages.  We are far more forgiving.  The United States, for example, never prosecuted the leaders of the Confederacy, although they committed treason.  

For those opposed to the United States, however, revenge always remains on the agenda.  Bin Laden’s death is just another reason to lash out.

Was bin Laden’s death justice?  No.  It was revenge.  No different than what terrorists groups have in mind. Justice involves a fair trial with the opportunity for the accused to defend himself.  However, as several commentators noted, if bin Laden had been captured, the United States would have found itself in a very awkward dilemma.  

We have not done well with existing detainees held in Guantanamo Bay for many years.  Bin Laden would have made the situation worse.  Where would his trial been held?  New York doesn’t want to host any trials of terrorists, fearing terrorists’ attacks. No one else does either.  Secret trials are hardly conducive to justice anyway. What kind of evidence could be produced?  Who would testify? A trial would have been a nightmare.

Were celebrations at his death appropriate?  No.  They are understandable, but celebrating the death of one person, however despicable, demeans us all.  Personally, I didn’t know what to feel: relief, possibly, that one phase of the war was over; dismay at the public reaction, which resembled more a ancient Roman coliseum crowd cheering after the death of a gladiator than anything else; concern, at what bin Laden’s death might encourage his followers to do; and disappointment with so many comments I heard that somehow this death would end the war.

Was the attack on bin Laden's home justified?  Absolutely.  He was leading an implacable enemy.  We tried to kill Hitler, who was far more deadly.  Bin Laden is no different.  At the same time, American troops captured what could be a vital trove of important documents.  Possibly, the computer files and disks will contain information that could dismantle planned insidious actions.  I tend to doubt that.  I can’t imagine any sophisticated and intelligent leader putting such information on a disk that could be compromised.  Perhaps, they are in code; perhaps they contain lists of contacts.  Still, anything would be helpful.
Did President Obama make the right call in ordering the attack on bin Laden’s compound?  Absolutely.  In chess and in war, the object is to remove the king.  Obama had to be thinking of failed effort to rescue the Iranian hostages ordered by Carter and been relieved with the success this time.  The problem is that this isn’t a game.  There will be a new king.
Will bin Laden’s death raise more questions?  Of course.  The end of Mubarek’s regime in Egypt hardly resolved the situation there, for example.  The demise of bin Laden will not settle our battle with terrorists.  That will continue whether our troops stay or leave, whether we kill a dozen more al Qaeda leaders.
The only real answer is to leave the Iranians and Afghanis to handle their own affairs as they see fit.  In fact, had we done that, there wouldn’t have been as many questions to answer in the first place.

Bill Lazarus is a religious historian who has written a variety of books on the subject.  You can respond via his website or through this blog.

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