My post on the announcement of the killing of Osama bin Laden and the reaction to it stimulated a fascinating debate. As a way of continuing it, I asked the contributors to Deliberately Considered to add their observations and judgments. I invited each to write a short note responding to the following:
What is the meaning of the killing of bin Laden and the American public’s reaction to it? Is the Obama administration correct in not releasing photos of the bin Laden’s body? And what do you think about Obama’s visit to “ground zero today? I asked them to respond to all three of the questions, any one or any combination.
A number of the responses seem to be shaped by the specific location of the contributors. I first post these. I will post the rest over the weekend, and will add my reflections on the contributions and on reader responses on Monday. Again, I invite Deliberately Considered readers to add their judgments. It would be particularly interesting to know how people see this global media event from a variety of other specific locations, here in the U.S. and around the world. -Jeff
Ahmad Sadri, Illinois
As the news of the killing of Usamah Bin Laden broke I was on a live radio show (WGN’s Extension 70, Chicago.) I was asked about my impression. The most prominent feeling that I had was relief. I wasn’t relieved because UBL had been killed by American SEALs. The man had little influence on the operations of Al Qaeda. He had been made irrelevant by the Arab Spring that is the farthest possible thing from the demented dreams of his militant Islamism.
I was relieved because the execution of UBL was a denouement for a vendetta. Americans have been consumed with rage because the perpetrator of the horrific acts of terrorism on that bloody Tuesday ten years ago was never caught. It is my belief that this public fury was partly responsible for the biggest blunder of American foreign policy: the invasion of Iraq. The haughty neo-cons that planned and executed that war were high on an ideological ego trip, and they relied on the reservoir of festering collective anger as they sold their “noble lies” about Saddam’s WMDs.
Probably many of the readers of this blog, their political leanings notwithstanding, have cringed at the sight of the celebrations that followed the demise of UBL. But, these triumphalist exhibitions signaled a cathartic moment in American life. It was befitting that President Obama remained silent at the laying of the wreath on Ground Zero. But the anger of the masses had to be satisfied in a mob scene… and, I hope, it was.
Laura Pacifici, Rhode Island
I am embarrassed, to say the least, by the way in which my generation responded to the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death. The Washington Post reported that just as Obama declared that “justice had been done,” students across the country gathered together to celebrate the news by cracking open beers and chanting “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” on and around their college campuses. Prompted by statuses on Facebook such as “Party on the White House lawn,” students from universities in Washington, D.C. (American University, Georgetown, Howard University…) took the news as an opportunity to celebrate in the streets. But universities in D.C. were not the only ones to experience these sorts of celebrations. On my campus, Brown University, a friend informed me that individuals in a dorm next to his were playing “Born in the U.S.A.” and gathering for drinks.
Jubilance of this kind is not only inappropriate but also offensive. We were horrified to see Bin Laden supporters celebrating the death of Americans on September 11, 2001, and here we are doing the same about Bin Laden. The death of Bin Laden certainly was symbolic of our (momentary) triumph over Al Qaeda; it may have even offered the closure that the nation and those personally affected by 9/11 needed; and for some it offered legitimacy for our ongoing military presence in the Middle East. But as an Associated Press article points out, “It’s one thing to be satisfied that the world’s most wanted terrorist has been killed by a U.S. Navy SEAL unit in Pakistan. But where does satisfaction end and gloating begin?”
While I may not approve of the reaction that some college students had to this news, it is true that my generation has a unique relationship to 9/11 and the subsequent missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. While our parents’ young adult years were defined by the Vietnam War, we have come of age just as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan developed. It is odd to claim these events as our own given our lack of involvement in the wars (especially compared to our parents’ involvement in Vietnam) and our general apathy to its ongoing progress. But perhaps what we saw on Sunday night in the reactions to Bin Laden’s death was some subconscious recognition of a vested interest that we, in my generation, have in seeing that America successfully kills the enemy who has defined the history of our lives so far.
Chris Eberhardt, China
At about 11:15am Beijing time (10:15pm NY time) I received the following text: “bid laden dead. americans are said to have body”. I checked the NY Times, there was no mention, but the BBC had something. I forwarded the text to a friend from New York. That evening it was the cover story in the Beijing papers, and those I overheard gasped at the news.
I asked my students the next day if they thought bin Laden was dead, eight students said no, and the ninth said he didn’t care. My students asked me if I thought he was dead, and I replied that I believed the news more than they did. I asked them if they would believe the news if it was announced the Chinese army had killed bin Laden, the answer was the same.
Like others, I watched the pictures of revelers with a bit of amazement, but what stuck with me more were the images of enhanced security in New York and Washington, D.C. I saw more guns (not pistols either) than I’ve seen in over a year being here in Beijing, and Beijing is not short on police or military officers.
I think it’s telling that security went up, and not down afterward. In Beijing almost every day I put my backpack into the subway x-ray machines to prevent domestic terrorism. But there is a certain level of inner peace living here in China, that I’m not sure is possible again in the United States without dramatic changes in foreign policy, not simply killing someone who objected to US foreign policy.
Andras Bozoki, Hungary
(Directly answering the questions posed.)
1. The meaning of killing of Osama bin Laden is that the U.S. is ready to ‘pay back the loans’ by any means necessary. It sends a message to future terrorists that their crime will not be forgotten and forgiven. It also means that the U.S. defines the war on terror literally as a war where enemies are killed. (So this is not framed as peace-time activity with its procedure of legal justice.) It’s war, not peace. Democratic, human, and national pride is as important (if not more) than the procedures of the criminal code.
2. The U.S. administration should come up with clear evidence that Osama is indeed dead, otherwise many people will simply not believe it. A picture circulated about the dead the Ceausescus in Romania in 1989 as well which served as proof of the execution. However, if the picture is too brutal, it might have a boomerang effect, and it might provoke strong anti-US sentiments. I understand the US government not publishing the pictures (although some newspapers will certainly), but then it should present some other forms of evidence.
3. I had no time to follow the details of Obama’s visit to Ground Zero from Hungary. I find understandable that he wants to pick the political fruits, on the terrain of symbolic politics, of this successful military operation. By this move, he can win the hearts of millions of US citizens. He can recapture his popularity, and by doing so he can make a significant step towards his re-election next year. This is a pragmatic political move that is usually done by politicians in similar situations.
Anna Paretskaya, Wisconsin
Here in Madison, there actually hasn’t been much public reaction to Bin Laden’s death, definitely no celebrations like around the White House — either because 9/11 and anything that relates to it (except the two wars in which many local kids serve and die) is far removed for most people here, or because local developments (which are still happening) take up most people’s time and energy. I think that same as Wisconsin events are muted and remote for most people on the east coast, so does Bin Laden’s death seem somewhat of an “east coast affair.” Do we even live in the same country?
Nahed Habiballah, Palestine
Killing Bin Laden is seen by many as an act of revenge. Because it was inflicted by a superpower does not change the fact that such action was based on primal instincts: “an eye for an eye.” What is alarming about this action is that it legitimizes killing instead of legal prosecution. Such prosecution would be more sensible, yielding the possibility of true justice and information through interrogation, as opposed to killing.
Moreover, the way the Americans conducted the operation has given a green light to use excessive force, suggesting that all measures should be taken to quash the enemy and all means are legitimate. The following piece from Ha’aretz reflects this sentiment.
“The paradox is fascinating. Barack Obama is winning a war George W. Bush went out to fight. Obama’s democratic America is winning thanks to the dirty war it is conducting in Pakistan, without the High Court of Justice and B’Tselem.
What is forbidden to Israel in the war against terror is permitted to the United States. That is how victory was achieved. That is how the twin towers’ blood score was settled. That is how a liberal from Chicago has greatly improved his chances of winning a second term in the White House.”
What was unsettling to many Muslims was how Bin Laden’s body was dumped into the sea and the allegation that it complies with Islamic burial, while in fact it does not (according to Islamic tradition, only those who die at sea and are a day’s travel away from the land).
Lastly, Obama’s visit to ground zero had clearly the re-election campaign in mind, even though he wanted to portray it as a victory for the U.S. How is it a victory when Bin Laden was able to escape the greatest army in the world for nine years? Obama gave Bin Laden more value when he presented him as a U.S. rival.
Irit Dekel, Germany
The cover story this week of the German center-left weekly, Die Zeit, is on Bin Laden’s death. Editor Josef Joffe, in a piece entitled, “Death in the spring,” claims that clearly killing Bin Laden does not imply the sinking of his “murderly business,” and that the Al Qaeda franchise cannot be decapitated by this act. Nor were the offshoots of the second generation of the Red Army Faction. However, Joffe argues that the success of the American SEAL commando was more than a staged victory, because it highlights two encouraging implications: the winners of this “global war on terror” are not elite armies but civilians who helped catch Bin Laden. Second, like Jeff in the opening post about reactions to Bin Laden’s death in the US, Joffe claims that killing Bin Laden after ten long years is not an accident but a culmination of the Arab Spring, a fundamental change of the times. The message from Tahrir Square is that a democracy leaves no room for Bin Laden, and diminishes the attractiveness of terror.
Wolfgang Günter Lerch at the centrist Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung, in his article “The World of Yesterday,” claims that Bin Laden symbolizes above all is the “world of yesterday,” having nothing to do with the Arab Rebellion and the struggle for freedom, even if he is seen as a martyr by his followers.
It is probably not by accident that both of these articles’ titles alluded to the shaky, post-war and pre-war times in Spain (Death in the Spring by Rodoreda) and Austria (The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig). The readership of those papers recognize the context, relate to the metaphor, and can then reflect on the content on yet another level of engagement. In the US, staged celebrations of course do not mean that they are unreal, or not reflected on, rather, as Laura Pacifici argues, that they are made for a certain public, at a certain time and place. I hope that this message of an epochal change will be more reflected on, and is celebrated too, and that after the festivities their energy will be channeled to the real work of making this change possible and realistic, by the same generation that made the Arab Spring possible.