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The Death

I have been thinking about the way we killed Osama bin Laden.

When I say we, I mean we nationally, of course. Nothing I personally did had any effect on that, unless my votes and the margin of victory provided for my Party had some sort of effect, which, frankly, I can’t imagine. What could Senator Blumenthal have had to do with this raid? Anyway, despite my not being personally involved, I am nationally responsible, as are most if not all of the Gentle Readers of this Tohu Bohu, so it bears thinking about.

First of all, of course, I have no sympathy for the dead man or for those who mourn him, frankly. Just no emotional pull there, I’m afraid. He mad possible a lot of bad, bad things, and his supporters supported those things, and if they are grieving at this time, and I’m sure they are, it doesn’t make me sad in the slightest.

I’m not sure I have any emotional response to the killing at all, really. Which seems odd. I’m not elated, I don’t feel closure or triumph or relief. Well, to some extent relief, I suppose, although mostly (if I’m interpreting my own feelings correctly, which is always chancy) relief that the story is over—not relief at the end of danger but relief at the end of the irritation that we are still hunting for him and not finding him.

I think that sense that the story has changed is the big positive, here. For a long time, the story has been that Osama bin Laden murdered three thousand Americans and escaped. America for all its might and its spy satellites and its enhanced interrogation techniques could not find Public Enemy Number One. Now the story is that when America bends its will, we can be delayed but never stopped.

This is nonsense too, of course. We haven’t found Whitey Bulger. We haven’t even found Victor Manuel Gerena, a Machetero involved in the White Eagle robbery (which I have never heard of, despite living not far from its location), and he has been a fugitive for twenty-seven years—and is a member of an accredited terrorist organization that (a) has a history of murdering American servicemen and civilians, and (2) seems it ought to have extremely limited resources for hiding fugitives. We are stopped fairly frequently, and could well have been stopped by the old lunatic just clutching his chest and keeling over six years ago. Still, it’s a good story this way.

And I can’t help contrasting this to Saddam Hussein—when our boys caught Saddam Hussein, he was evidently hiding out in a bunker without running water, he had been totally cut off and such loyalists as remained were of no help to him nor he to them. Now, it was always possible that he would return a few years later and form the spearhead for a revolt of ex-Baathists, so it’s clearly a Good Thing that he was caught, but it wasn’t in any way a blow to the operation of the resistance.

Osama bin Laden, on the other hand, was living in a house he had built for his comfort and security in a major urban area. Although he evidently didn’t have phone and internet access, he clearly wasn’t lacking for communication channels (as evidence the “courier” we hear so much about). And I’ve never been very clear about the extent to which the fellow was some sort of operational chief anyway. Clearly he was the head fund-raiser and was a sort of inspirational figure for recruitment and for goals and means, though, and I can’t imagine that he had much difficulty acting in that capacity from his suburban safe house. To the extent that Al Quaida was ever a substantial threat to the US, it was evidently still a threat, still with substantial resources and communication capabilities. Saddam Hussein in a gilded palace with an army at his command was a potent force; Saddam in a hidey-hole with a pistol was not. Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad was a potent force, it seems to me.

And here’s where I find myself bewildered and perplexed: up until the news of his death, I assumed that Osama bin Laden was no longer a potent force. I actually would have given something like twelve-to-seven against his being alive. In my imagination, if Osama bin Laden were alive at all, he was in a situation not unlike Saddam Hussein’s when we caught him: cut off, uncomfortable, degraded. This appears not to have been true in the slightest. Presumably this was well-known amongst his supporters. That must have been very good for him and for fund-raising and recruitment for anti-American terrorism generally, and it’s a relief to know that we put an end to it, even if I didn’t have anything to be relieved from, not having known it until it was over.

I am rambling. The thing is, I don’t really have anything other than rambling. I am concerned that my country appears to be involved in assassination, but then I’m not sure it is assassination, properly speaking, and to the extent that war seems to be only sort-of a metaphor for what was going on then a military assault on the leadership is not altogether an assassination. On the other hand, does this set a precedent? That would be extremely troubling. On the other other hand, that precedent has already been set, and it doesn’t shock me that a Most Wanted was killed rather than captured—Mr. Gerena’s buddy from the White Eagle robbery, Filiberto Ojeda RĂ­os, went down pretty much the same way, and he was an United States citizen on American soil. And we have been sending drones to blow up buildings in civilian neighborhoods to reach "high value" targets for years in this war-like-thing. So if the death doesn’t bother me as a death, and it doesn’t worry me as a precedent, why does it niggle at me? I think it must be that stuff I was rambling about. Or perhaps it’s just that after spending almost twenty years living with a boogey-man, even if it was somebody else’s boogey-man for the most part, it leaves a hole when he goes?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


> up until the news of his death, I assumed that Osama bin Laden was no longer a potent force

Me too, I think in part precisely because we hadn't found him: It's hard to wield power invisibly; so if he were in fact powerful, then surely we'd be able to find him; so, since we can't find him, he must not be very powerful (or, at least, must not be using his power).

I'm not surprised that it's easy to vanish and hide, even from as mighty a thing as the United F-ing States Of God Bless America, but I am surprised to hear that you can do it and still do anything other than cling desperately to subsistence.

(I suppose one obvious conclusion is that he had help, and this is a place where things start to get political: It's not plausible that he could have been living that well, and retaining that much power, without someone powerful hiding him. Like, say, the Government Of Pakistan, one of our best allies in the war on terror. Oops.)

Re the way Osama bin Laden was hiding is interesting. It was "hiding for the digital age." It makes me wonder where Mullah Omar has built his suburban safehouse . . .

One reason I feel little in response to bin Laden's death is because he was a symbol of a situation, not the ultimate cause of that situation, so his death does little to change the fundamentals. The United States has propped up corrupt, brutal dictatorships in the Middle East for oil, as a buffer against "The Russians," and as an ally to Israel for over half a century. That this behavior has provoked anger against the United States is entirely understandable. That the CIA-trained bin Laden found ways to project his anger and hatred into deadly attacks on United States soil made him unusual and directly dangerous to the citizens of the United States, and he bears personal responsibility for his decisions to kill people on a large scale and for his commitment to oppressive theocracy as the alternative to U.S. hegemony, but, as I understand it, our agents gave him his start and, in the process, represented the meaning of the United States to him. The United States is too deeply implicated in the making of bin Laden for me to feel any sense of victory in this action.

Also, when war criminals who are responsible for killing orders of magnitude more people than bin Laden and for inflicting lasting suffering on the innocent people of at least two nations are walking free in the United States, where no team of elite Navy Seals would be needed to apprehend them, merely a willingness to enforce the rule of law and acknowledge the truth of our own actions, I can't say the killing of bin Laden shows that the will of America is yet turned with any seriousness toward justice.

I felt a lot more about the fall of Mubarak than I do at the killing of bin Laden.

Pretty much what Chris said. I think that's why I didn't feel immediate elation as Bin Laden's death either.

Hey Chris:

May I quote you (with attribution) on my Facebook page? Your comment is a nice summation of exactly what I've been feeling about this crap.


Matt: sure. I'm glad I put the words together in a way that was useful.

I agree with you, Chris, about the lack of seriousness (to use that poisoned word) about justice that is in some sense heightened by the reaction to this killing and, of course, Our Only President's speech. So there's that element to my emotional reaction, the sort of dissonance between aims and lives.

Furthermore, I would have a hard time feeling particularly victorious when the US, clearly the wealthiest and most dominant nation in the world, is able to take out the leadership of a pathetically small non-state actor. I mean. This isn't Civ, but if it was, it's just knocking out one of those little barbarian encampments, not an actual victory.


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