Monday, May 02, 2011

Osama bin Laden is dead

By Michael J.W. Stickings

(Watch President's Obama's remarks below, as well as CNN's OBL obituary.)

Truly shocking news:

Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the most devastating attack on American soil in modern times and the most hunted man in the world, was killed in a firefight with United States forces in Pakistan on Sunday, President Obama announced.

In a dramatic late-night appearance in the East Room of the White House, Mr. Obama declared that "justice has been done" as he disclosed that American military and C.I.A. operatives had finally cornered the Al Qaeda leader who had eluded them for nearly a decade and shot him to death at a compound in Pakistan. 


I'm not sure what to say. Many will applaud this, and, in my own way, I will too. But I won't do so with glee. Because I just don't think the situation warrants it. Not after all that has happened, after all the death, after all the suffering. The gravity of the situation is simply too immense. Perhaps we call all breath a sigh of relief, but, of course, it -- everything bin Laden stood for and fought for, and the movement he led -- does not end with his death. He will be just as powerful, if not more so, in death than he was this past decade in life.

I'm watching CNN now. People are cheering. Flags are waving. I understand that. I think back to 9/11. And I realize, remembering the horrors of that day, along with so many other horrors bin Laden caused, I do feel a sense of relief. What else was to be done? How else could this, this stage of the war against al Qaeda and its partners, end?

Wolf Blitzer just used the word "thrilled" to describe how Americans feel. Well, not just Americans. No doubt a lot of people are thrilled by this news. And people are celebrating. There are scenes of champagne flowing. People are celebrating around America and around the world, says Wolf. No, not everyone, but it's certainly an astonishing thing. And the scenes from outside the White House, and at Ground Zero, are incredible.

Sorry, I'm just sorting out my thoughts...

I feel great joy. I'm just not in such a celebratory mood. Because as big as this is, I remain filled with sadness that the world is as it is. And war, even in victory, such that this is a victory, is always sad. Given the gravity of it all, I cannot quite let myself go.

But let me also say this: This is an incredible triumph for the U.S. and its allies, as well as for President Obama personally. After so many years, after the disastrous war in Iraq that took America's attention away from what it should have been on, namely, the war on those who were truly at war with America, after the endlessly up-and-down Afghan War, largely forgotten once Bush took the country into Iraq, now seemingly a quagmire, there is finally a moment of definite triumph. Forget the toppling of Saddam. This is well beyond that. The "war" is not over, and it would be a huge mistake to think that, but there is at least a sense of justice tonight, and that's what has been missing throughout the "war on terror."

Details of the operation in Pakistan are still scant, but from what I can tell, from the reports coming in, it was both incredibly risky and incredibly well-executed. And President Obama deserves enormous credit for his leadership. For all the failures of the post-9/11 period, when the U.S. seemed to let bin Laden get away, he knew what had to be done and, when the time came, he made the decision to act.

(Update: Apparently, planning for the operation, based on key intelligence leads and clues, had been underway for a long time. Ultimately, U.S. special forces (Navy SEALS), reportedly with Pakistani support, raided a compound, in a fairly densely-populated area in Abbottabad, just north of Islamabad, where Osama was thought to be living. Efforts were made to avoid civilian casualties. A firefight broke out and, according to reports, Osama was shot in the head. Of course, we have reason to be skeptical. We're only getting the White House's and military's good-news spin. Still, it does seem that the operation was undertaken with enormous care.)

How can one not look at this through a political lens? Certainly Obama succeeded where Bush failed. Certainly Obama should be able to benefit politically from this. Republicans, including those running for president, will no doubt find fault with Obama. They'll try to find something, anything. Maybe they'll say Obama should have acted sooner. Whatever. We're already hearing that this operation was weeks, if not months (and of course the search for bin Laden goes back years and years), in the making, and that the president and his chief advisors, including Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton, was deeply involved throughout. Ultimately, the call was his. And this is the result.

I'm beginning to lighten up a bit. Yes, I'm thrilled. Yes, there is good reason to celebrate. Let us all feel not just a sense of relief but a sense that justice has been done. Let's just not get ahead of ourselves. Bin Laden was the leader, or a leader, of this jihadist war against not just America but our entire way of life in the West (and much of the non-West, including modernization in the Islamic world), but it was not all about him. And it will continue, and perhaps even worsen, as bin Laden becomes a martyr, and, again, more powerful in death than he was post-9/11.

Let us celebrate, and let us applaud President Obama and those involved in this operation, but let us also remember the gravity of the situation. This is bigger than Osama bin Laden, and we haven't "won" anything, and, yes, war is hell no matter what. But at least, at the very least, after years and years of struggle, we can raise our hands in celebration, however qualified, whether uproarious or muted or somewhere in between. 

Osama bin Laden is dead.


1:55 am: Yes, I do understand that this represents a certain "closure" for the families of 9/11 victims, as well as for all those connected personally to those attacks. But what is closure to them -- and I think all of us who watched what happened that day and felt so deeply about it can feel similar closure -- is not necessarily closure in terms of the larger war, and that's the point I was trying to make above. Some are enthusiastically referring to this as "Mission Accomplished." No way. Yes, a mission was accomplished, but it is dangerously wrong to think that Osama's death means that all is now well. 

2:00 am: Let me also say that I understand the need to celebrate, to feel good about this, to wave flags and drink champagne and all that (and even to chant USA! USA! USA!). There has been so much fear and terror, so much death, so much suffering, so much uncertainty this past decade. And people need to let loose. And in a way I wish I were there in New York or Washington, or anywhere else where people are gathering and celebrating, where people are coming together and not just raising hands but joining them. I have no time for jingoism, whether American or otherwise, and that's why I tend to be reserved and cautious, but this is indeed a time when we should be joining hands, across America and across the world, not just to celebrate the death of a man (and I'm not sure it's ever good to celebrate death, even Osama's, though, again, it probably had to come to this) but to pledge ourselves to a better future, a future of peace, and to work together towards it. 

2:11 am: All over the media, there are reports of speculation of possible retaliation for Osama's death, whether by al Qaeda or others (and it does seem likely that there has been preparation for this possible eventuality). We need to be careful not to succumb to fearmongering manipulation, but there is indeed legitimate concern in this case.

2:19 am: Stay tuned. We'll have a lot more on this later today and in the days to come. In the meantime, everyone, take care.

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