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Killing bin Laden leads to questions of government, ourselves

by Gary Olson

May 4, 2011
Originally published in The Morning Call

It may be too early to draw absolute lessons from the U.S. military's assassination of Osama bin Laden, but here are a few observations and questions.

First, why have 7,000 Americans died in Iraq and Afghanistan and hundreds of thousands of civilians been killed, only to have bin Laden executed by Navy SEALs in a location only 35 miles north of Islamabad, Pakistan? Apparently he'd been living in a well-guarded, luxury compound for the last five years, not hiding in a remote cave in Afghanistan.

Second, during the still ongoing Arab Spring, how much thought did you give to bin Laden and al-Qaida? I'm guessing not much, if any. The fledgling and courageous democracy movements in the region, led by younger Arabs, totally bypassed bin Laden and his ilk. Robert Fisk, the Middle East expert who interviewed bin Laden three times since 9/11, correctly notes that he'd already become irrelevant. Fisk writes, "We're now in the middle of this huge Arab revolution, when millions of Arab Muslims are getting rid of their dictators because they want a secular, free, democratic society which is the opposite of what bin Laden wanted."

Currently, the brutal Assad dictatorship in Syria is under siege by its own citizens but they're demanding democracy, not Islamic rule.

That is, while Washington was fighting two illegal wars (including Iraq which had no al-Qaida presence), raining missiles on civilians from drones, dispatching CIA kill teams, and supporting continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, a democratic revolution began in the Arab world and continues to gain traction. This first phase is now encountering fierce rollback from the tyrannical old guard and the United States is supporting these counter-democracy elements. This is what should merit our attention, not the irrelevant Osama bin Laden's demise. Why? Because both Osama and Obama have been on the wrong side of history.

Third, bin Laden's assassination should mean there's one less excuse for a continued U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan. Whether this occurs will depend on public pressure, but given the mindless and macabre chanting of "USA, USA," I'm not sanguine about that eventuality in the near term. That's unfortunate because this could be an unparalleled opportunity for citizen-to-citizen conversation and reflection about the existence of an American empire, whose interests it serves, and the enormous lost opportunity costs for our people. Clearly, these questions won't be coming from the top.

Fourth, killing bin Laden won't undo the hatred for the U.S. because he and al-Qaida were responses to U.S. occupations around the Arab world and beyond. Recall that terrorism is a tactic, and U.S. policy, not bin Laden, was the recruiting magnet for terrorism. This will continue until the policy changes or the empire collapses. The Pentagon report from 2004 still applies: "Muslims do not 'hate our freedom' but rather they hate our policies."

Finally, I'm not sorry that this mass murderer is dead, but I would have preferred that he'd been captured, preferably at Tora Bora in 2001 when the opportunity was there. Treating this as a criminal case, followed by a public trial then or now would have exacted both justice and a fuller picture of terrorism from multiple vantage points.

The world was denied a much-needed accounting and in a sense, the United States gave bin Laden the death he wanted. The man knew too much, and I suspect that early on Washington ruled out a trial. For example, as Fisk notes, "He might have talked about his contacts with the CIA during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan."

All of the above leaves many troubling questions. We should be asking them of our government but more importantly, of ourselves.

Gary Olson, Ph.D., chairs the political science department at Moravian College.