So Osama Bin Laden, not seen for a long time, is dead, killed by an American bullet in a raid on his compound in Pakistan. Why was he killed? Orders were to capture him unless he "resisted." So he resisted and was shot. But what was his resistance? Did he even fire off one shot? It may be a long time before we'll have the answer to that. Now he is a martyr, a shahīd, as his followers would want, even if he was buried, cleverly, at sea, with respect and obsequies of some kind translated into Arabic. At least a man of such mythic proportions was saved a long grim stay at Guantánamo. But chortling over the discovery of Bin Laden's hard drive seems out of place when the elite US troops sent to get Bin Laden himself, a greater treasure than a computer file, failed to do so.
Perhaps this is a moment for Americans to rejoice, if the primitive rite of dancing on the graves of one's enemies appeals to you (and you can imagine yourself dancing on water). Certainly the annihilation of its famous leader is a blow to Al Qaeda, financial as well as symbolic. However it's being pointed out that this does nothing to weaken Al Qaeda in Yemen or in Saudi Arabia, "AQSA." For Americans to chortle over this accomplishment is also tinged with some irony, since it has taken close to ten years to find a man living in plain sight, in the most obvious place, Pakistan. This is certainly not too little. It's quite a lot. But it is pretty late, for the most powerful and well-armed nation on the planet to take almost a decade to find a man who was so wanted, and so quiet and so still.
Anyway Bin Laden's death is a significant event, a milestone. It's a chance to take stock and plan new steps. But what steps, exactly? Opponents of US war-making lost no time saying this is a good opportunity to push for quicker US withdrawal from Afghanistan. Why did the US invade Afghanistan? Oh yes, to "get" Bin Laden. But like all US wars, this invasion's purpose was blurred. The invasion also quickly became to "get" the Taliban, whom before Washington had been making deals with. Mainly Afghanistan was something dramatic to do in symbolic retaliation for September 11. It was an easy if dubious symbol, an impoverished and defenseless country for the US, led by George Bush, to attack till such time as he and his neocon hawk cronies could mount the by them long-anticipated war on Iraq. Afghanistan is a complicated subject, and while there are many reasons why the US should get out of there, Bin Laden's death doesn't seem to be the primary one now.
What Bin Laden's death should mean, as currently suggested by Katrina vanden Heuvel in The Nation, is that it's time to end the "war on terror." Bin Laden and his organization's fiendish attack on the eastern US in 2001 did more than anyone or anything else to make this look like a real "war." But it is not a war, and is an activity that never can be defeated by war.
This is a tough one, but it's the one that matters. It's tough because "war on terror" has been drilled into the public mind like "the red menace" during the Cold War era. The "war on terror" is the best pretext for repression and peeling away civil liberties that has arisen since the "red menace." The Communist Bloc was certainly a formidable power -- for those who suffered under its repressive regimes at least -- until it collapsed on its own. "Terror" or "terrorism," however, is not an organized force, and its power is largely abstract and psychological.
From the beginning I have argued that the less you do to call attention to Islamic terrorism by reorganizing western nations into the community of the terrorized and the more you instead simply continue as usual, the more you will discourage interest in and support of Al Qaeda and similar groups. Despite the horror of the events of September 11, as well as the terrifying accomplishment of destroying the Twin Towers, Islamic terrorism is not a threat to the US. There are domestic terrorists who pose more of a threat and who are ignored by the public and the media. Both should be carefully watched and thwarted when necessary, but these are police actions, not targets for the armed forces.
Vanden Heuvel points to FDR's warning to Americans that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." On the other hand, people in many other countries have good reason to fear the United States, because its drones and troops and weaponry are killing them, and their children and grandchildren, month by month, day by day. As terrible as the toll of September 11 was, its psychological tool was far greater. The death of Bin Laden is a good time to put that fear to rest and to remember that America creates its own danger and causes people to hate it by making wars on the innocent.