That felt good, didn’t it?
There are plenty of reasons – both analytical and moral – to stifle euphoria at the news of Osama bin Laden’s killing. It is unlikely to make a material difference in the operational capabilities of the loose federation of terrorists operating under the al-Qaida banner. A death, no matter whose, is a dubious cause for celebration. Things could get dicey with Pakistan. Vengeance isn’t a healthy craving. Yadda yadda yadda.
And yet: that felt so good. Go with it, embrace the catharsis.
The killing of bin Laden is about more than justice in the clichéd sense of bringing closure to the families of victims of 9/11 (which it can’t really do). What Sunday night’s electrifying news delivered was a firm rebuttal to our collective sense of helplessness and impotence.
Yes we can – indeed.
In terms of the psychic dividend, the circumstances of bin Laden’s death are all-important. He didn’t die of natural causes in some cave, having eluded American forces till the end. He didn’t go down, serendipitously, in the crossfire of some routine operation. He wasn’t taken out by an anonymous drone. No, American military and intelligence forces painstakingly tracked down the terrorist. After discarding the safer alternative of bombing the compound, our commander-in-chief sent in special forces who managed to shoot Osama bin Laden in the face and haul away his body without taking a single casualty. Think about that. Some Navy Seal – a young man whose character might have been formed on a high school wrestling or football team in a place like Fresno or Toledo back in the halcyon days when we fretted about some futuristic Y2K bug instead of the bearded, medieval-seeming lunatic declaring jihad against America – took the one definitive shot. For all of us.
The United States has had a rough decade – millennium, actually. Think back to the exuberant days of 1999, when talk of American omnipotence was all the rage and our politics were consumed by the twin luxuries of obsessing over the president’s sex life and debating what was to be done with those mounting federal surpluses. Since that (admittedly illusory) high, we have botched a presidential election, mishandled the occupation of Iraq, practically lost a great American city to the avoidable ravages of a hurricane and its aftermath, discovered through the course of two gut-wrenching economic implosions just how rigged and corrupted our financial markets had become and mortgaged our future to foreign central banks. For all its obvious strengths, America, to the puzzlement of the rest of world, had also become the land of Enron, inadequate sea walls, hanging chads, Abu Ghraib and trillion-dollar deficits.
Worst of all, we couldn’t even get “that guy.” We do have bigger problems, but none more symbolic and tangible and maddening than the mastermind of the deadliest attack on U.S. soil getting away with it, unscathed.
Until now. It took a decade – longer, if you set the clock from the time he bombed our embassies in Africa – but the stark code words relayed from the special forces back to the White House provided the bookend to our national trauma: “Geronimo KIA.”
Bin Laden remained a protagonist in our collective consciousness long after the history of his own part of the world seemed to pass him by. The Arab Spring has unfolded, but al-Qaida and its worldview couldn’t have been more alien to the democratic protesters on Tahir Square and elsewhere in the Middle East. Bin Laden witnessed the history he’d long awaited – as an irrelevant bystander. And to the extent that al-Qaida does remain a viable force, it is led by a new generation of jihadists, for whom the old man may be more useful as martyr than he was in isolated retirement. There is indeed something pathetic about the superpower’s greatest nemesis being guarded by a handful of cronies.
The fact that it took so long to hunt down bin Laden, more than twice the time it took America to wage a global conflict that successfully extinguished the combined threat of Nazism and Japanese militarism, is a two-edged sword. Bin Laden’s endurance called into question our nation’s ingenuity, character, purpose, competence and stamina. Every breath he took represented a glaring asterisk to America’s self-image, and how others perceive us.
But the drawn-out time frame also suggests a counter-narrative that casts the United States in a much better light: a story of tenacity and patience. A decade is practically infinite in American politics and military history, and yet we stuck to it and stayed in Afghanistan until we found him. This is not a story we hear frequently: tenacity and patience are not traits usually associated with the United States. Al-Qaida, of course, operates on the lunatic fringes of tenacity and patience gone awry: It was surreal to see bin Laden back in the fall of 2001 celebrating his 9/11 success as payback for “the tragedy of Andalusia,” referring to the 1492 expulsion of Muslims from the Spanish peninsula. So the fact that it took so many years and so much hard work makes the catharsis that much sweeter, doesn’t it?
Let’s hope that this reminder of national unity and purpose (harkening back to the 9/12 mood) isn’t fleeting and can be channeled toward the daunting challenges that stand between us and the nation’s future greatness – the crushing national debt, economic competitiveness, inequality, and yes, the remains of bin Laden’s movement in a time of asymmetrical warfare, when a few crazies can wreak such havoc. A telling joke bridging the petty absurdity of contemporary politics and the momentousness of Sunday’s news was quick to light up the blogosphere: Did you hear that Donald Trump is insisting on seeing Osama bin Laden’s death certificate? Only time will tell if the courageous takedown of bin Laden will serve as a catalyst for a more serious, purposeful politics in Washington, or whether it will prove a short reprieve from our decline into a Trumpian abyss.
Our nation’s leaders from both parties owe it to the memory of those who perished on 9/11 and on the battlefields of Afghanistan in the last 10 years, and to the courage of those special forces who accomplished their mission on Sunday, to vindicate our celebratory feeling.
Yes we can, indeed.
Andrés Martinez is Editorial Director of Zócalo Public Square and Director of the Bernard L. Schwartz Fellows Program at the New America Foundation.
*Photo courtesy of globovisión.