In the midst of the Arab Spring, which directly rejects al Qaeda-style small-group violence in favour of mass-based, society-wide mobilisation and non-violent protest to challenge dictatorship and corruption, does the killing of al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden represent ultimate justice, or even an end to the 'unfinished business' of 9/11?
US agents killed bin Laden in Pakistan, apparently without cooperation from the government in Islamabad. The al Qaeda leader was responsible for great suffering, I do not mourn his death. But every action has causes and consequences, and in the current moment all are dangerous. It is unlikely that the killing of bin Laden will have much impact on the already weakened capacity of al Qaeda, widely believed to be made up of only a couple hundred fighters between Afghanistan and Pakistan, though its effect on other terrorist forces is uncertain – Pakistan itself may pay a particularly high price.
As President Obama described it, “After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden.” Assuming that was indeed the case, this raid reflects the brutal reality of the deadly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that preceded it and that continue today, ten years later – it was not about bringing anyone to justice, it was about vengeance.
And given the enormous human costs still being paid by Afghans, Iraqis, Pakistanis and others in the US wars waged in the name of capturing bin Laden, it is particularly ironic that in the end it wasn’t the shock-and-awe airstrikes or invasions of ground troops, but rather painstaking police work – careful investigation, cultivating intelligence sources – that made possible the realisation of that goal.
President Obama acknowledged that the post-9/11 unity of the people of the United States “has at time frayed.” But he didn’t mention that that unity had actually collapsed completely within 24 hours of the horrifying attacks on the twin towers. September 11 didn’t 'change the world'; the world was changed on September 12, when George W. Bush announced his intention to take the world to war in response. That was the moment that the actual events of 9/11, a crime against humanity that killed nearly 3,000 people, were left behind and the 'global war on terror' began. That GWOT has brought years of war, devastation and destruction to hundreds of thousands around the world, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and beyond.
There was an unprecedented surge of unity, of human solidarity, in response to the crime of 9/11. In the US much of that response immediately took on a jingoistic and xenophobic frame (some of which showed up again last night in the aggressive chants of 'USA, USA!!' from flag-waving, cheering crowds outside the White House following President Obama’s speech). Some of it was overtly militaristic, racist and Islamophobic. But some really did reflect a level of human unity unexpected and rare in US history. Even internationally, solidarity with the people of the US for a brief moment replaced the well-deserved global anger at US arrogance, wars, and drive towards empire. In France, headlines proclaimed “nous sommes tous Américaines maintenant.” We are all Americans now.
But that human solidarity was short-lived. It was destroyed by the illegal wars that shaped US response to the 9/11 crime. Those wars quickly created numbers of victims far surpassing the 3,000 killed on September 11. The lives of millions more around the world were transformed in the face of US aggression – in Pakistan alone, where a US military team assassinated bin Laden, thousands of people have been killed and maimed by US drone strikes and the suicide bombs that are part of the continuing legacy of the US war. These wars have brought too much death and destruction, too many people have died, too many children have been orphaned, for the US to claim, as President Obama’s triumphantly did, that 'justice has been done' because one man, however symbolically important, has been killed. However one calculates when and how 'this fight' actually began, the US government chose how to respond to 9/11. And that response, from the beginning, was one of war and vengeance – not of justice.
President Obama’s speech last night could have aimed to put an end to the triumphalism of the 'global war on terror' that George Bush began and Barack Obama claimed as his own. It could have announced a new US foreign policy based on justice, equality, and respect for other nations. But it did not. It declared instead that the US war in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and beyond will continue.
In that reaffirmation of war, President Obama reasserted the American exceptionalism that has been a hallmark of his recent speeches, claiming that 'America can do whatever we set our mind to.' He equated the US ability and willingness to continue waging ferocious wars, with earlier accomplishments of the US – including, without any trace of irony, the 'struggle for equality for all our citizens.' In President Obama’s iteration, the Global War on Terror apparently equals the anti-slavery and civil rights movements.
Today, across the region, the Arab Spring is on the rise. It is ineffably sad that President Obama, in his claim that bin Laden’s death means justice, did not use the opportunity to announce the end of the deadly US wars that answered the attacks of 9/11. This could have been a moment to replace vengeance with cooperation, replace war with justice.
But it was not. Regardless of bin Laden’s death, as long as those deadly US wars continue in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and beyond, justice has not been done.
Phyllis Bennis is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and of the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam. Her books include Before & After: US Foreign Policy and the War on Terrorism