Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Thoughts on the Death of Osama bin Laden

1. President Obama deserves credit.

Without question, President Obama did the right thing. Two Presidents before Obama flinched when it came to Osama bin Laden. President Bill Clinton let him escape in the 1990s, while President George W. Bush let him escape in the 21st Century. It may have taken two years, but President Obama succeeded where the others failed. One may nitpick, or ask "What took so long?" Others may have found the Presidential announcement off-key.

However, any concerns about the circumstances should not take anything away from the fact that, for whatever reason, for whatever motive, President Obama succeeded where others before him had failed.

2. It is a real blow to Al Qaeda.

Those who maintain that this doesn't matter, or that bin Laden was not that important, don't understand the dynamics of revolutionary political movements. As bin Laden himself said, people bet on the strong horse against the weaker horse. Simply by staying alive for a decade with a price on his head, bin Laden defied the might and power and indeed legitimacy of the United States. Like Che Guevara, he came to symbolize anti-Americanism. He and his allies had blown up the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, downtown London, and sponsored attacks all over the world: Madrid, Bali, Algeria, Tunisia, Iraq, Israel, Russia, China, Turkey--thumbing his nose at everyone. This chutzpah alone gave Al Qaeda a following. With the killing of the Al Qaeda leader, America has finally shown the world that bin Laden didn't get away with it.

3. It is a tonic for the United States.

It makes concrete President Obama's campaign slogan, "Yes, we can!"

For almost decade, Americans have lived in fear: afraid to name the enemy's ideology; afraid to put terrorists on trial; afraid to fly; afraid to go into government buildings; afraid to close down Guantanamo, afraid even to think. The fear became contagious, creating a morale-sapping decade in which American commerce and industry--once the envy of the world--became a basket case. Likewise, government agencies ceased to function properly as scandals swirled from Hurricane Katrina, to the failure to prosecute Wall Street executives for fraud after the largest financial collapse in US history, to cheating scandals on standardized tests, to the failure to try and execute Major Nidal Hasan immediately after the Ft. Hood massacre--an open-and-shut case, if there ever was one.

Yes, the climate of fear resulted from a failure of leadership, institutionalized cowardice among political parties, business, and the citizenry. Now, the killing of bin Laden ought to permit American fear to be replaced by American confidence--and the rebuilding of shattered American institutions in the public, private, and non-profit sectors.

4. It is not a partisan issue.

This should go without saying. Bin Laden didn't attack Democrats or Republicans, he didn't attack Bush or Clinton--he attacked America. Likewise, all Americans were victims of the 9/11 attacks--not only families of those killed at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon or Flight 93. They suffered most directly, but the target was all of us.

5. It took much too long.

If this had happened in 2002, America could have celebrated. As it didn't, America can only be relieved. While cliches such as "better late than never" or Churchill's line that "Americans always do the right thing, after they have exhausted every alternative option" might seem apropos, they are not good enough.

With bin Laden finally dead, America must not flinch from rigorous self-examination, and an honest accounting for the mistakes of the past decade, in order to answer the question Bernard Lewis posed in another context: What Went Wrong?

To learn from our mistakes, first we must admit them.