It’s probably not politically correct to admit this, but I’m distinctly underwhelmed by the killing of Osama bin Laden. There. I’ve said it. Oh, make no mistake, Osama was a particularly nasty piece of work. The mastermind behind the September 11 2001 attacks on the World Trade Centre which killed around 2,752 people, and directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of many thousands of others, he was a murderous extremist. His death, at the hands of a highly trained team of US military personnel specialising in strategic missions, is symbolic revenge for the September 11 attack, but it hasn’t achieved anything else.
It is now almost a decade since former President George W.Bush announced his ‘war on terror’, gathered a posse and began systematically terrorising the people of Iraq. Osama bin Laden, meanwhile, retreated to his bolthole, which we now know was in the military town of Abbottabad in Pakistan, and other than making the odd televised broadcast in which he taunted the Americans and vowed ongoing nastiness, he ceased to be the issue. First there was Sadaam’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction. Then there was the Taliban. It is questionable just how much influence Osama has had on the decade-long conflict. What is not questioned is his influence on the way the world now operates, and his removal is not going to alter this fact one little bit. Within minutes of his death being announced, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade released a grim warning of ‘Enhanced risk of anti-Western violence’.
The killing of bin Laden was met with statements of relief and cautious optimism by world leaders. In the USA, where the 2012 election hopes of President Obama have just been elevated significantly, people danced in the streets. I can understand how people who lost family members or friends in the September 11 attacks would feel that justice has been done and revenge has been exacted, but I can’t help feeling disturbed by the sight of flag-waving Americans chanting and singing while compatriots remain in Afghanistan mired in a war that will not end just because the world’s most wanted man is dead. Do the thousands of families in Iraq and Afghanistan who have lost mothers, children, grandparents feel morally compensated for their loss? Are the Afghan kids with wads of bandages where their legs used to be cheering and waving flags? Do the families in the USA, Australia, France, Great Britain, Italy, Poland, Canada, the Netherlands, Spain and a number of other countries, who sent their sons, husbands and brothers (and yes, daughters, wives, sisters) to a war against terror and saw them return home in a box feel relief and joy? Or do they just feel hollow?
Osama’s death is, at best, a pyrrhic victory. It is not victory against the intangible enemy, terror, that George Bush and his Coalition of the Willing sought to defeat 10 years ago. Terror is still alive and kicking and will remain so for as long as there are people willing to kill and be killed for their idea of a glorious cause. This is to say: forever. That’s the problem when you go to war against an idea. It keeps shifting around.
Yet, the news broadcasts last night and the papers this morning trumpeted the demise of the west’s nemesis as though this is the last great victory that will end a decade not only of war, but of political obsessiveness with issues of security at the expense of many issues that are tangible, real and immediate. Terror, or terrorism, is not an enemy in the legal sense of war any more than communism – but then, the US has a track record of going to war against ideas. When terrorism manifests as attacks on innocent victims, the results are horrific and tragic, but the idea of terrorism is a political construct, it is not a real enemy. The real enemy remains unseen. That’s the point of terrorism.
Yes, Osama himself was a real enemy. But his death has not stopped the political construct of terrorism from poisoning minds around the world and poisoning governments which fall victim to the idea that everyone is a terrorist suspect. While this notion pervades policy on national security, terrorism and its practitioners keep the upper hand.
Americans might be partying with unrestrained self-congratulatory joy, but their country remains locked-down in a state of national nervousness. The death of one man, no matter how bad, is no cause for a street party while the lives of so many more remain on the line in the cause of fighting an abstract idea. The weapons may have become more sophisticated, but the idea is as old as human civilization.
I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Jessica Dovey (incorrectly attributed to Martin Luther King)
The stats in the war against terror:
American military personnel deaths (to August 2010): 5,554
American military personnel wounded (to Aug 2010): 35,302
Other coalition military personnel deaths: (to Aug 2010): 1,090
Civilian deaths (to Aug 2010): 874,736*
Cost ($US) (as of now): $787,930,134,729 (Iraq) $400,311,277,793 (Afghanistan)
*Figure includes 161 journalists and 1,231 private contractors