Like almost everyone else in America after 9/11, I hoped to see Osama bin Laden brought to justice. Although like some, at least, I was offended by President George W. Bush’s cowboy taunt, “dead or alive.” An assassination isn’t justice, a point seemingly forgotten by recent American presidents. Still, the idea of bin Laden at liberty, not to mention free to plot further atrocities, was certainly unacceptable. Whatever the complexities of Middle Eastern politics, he had destroyed a sizable part of my native city, or at least took credit for having done so. He was my country’s enemy, and mine.
So why, then, did I feel no satisfaction at the news of his death? Why, instead, of the cheer expressed by the crowd that broke into its spontaneous chant of “USA! USA!” at the ballgame I was watching, did I feel instead a sense of dismay? Why had I no sense of identification with the people who gathered to celebrate outside the nighttime White House? Had my patriotism suddenly gone missing?
What had happened was not only the passage of 10 years, during which time bin Laden had disappeared from view except for an occasional video, and, according to public statements both by the Bush and Obama administrations, had largely relinquished operational control of al-Qaeda as he hid in his supposed mountain redoubt. What had happened was a misbegotten war in Afghanistan that bore little if any relation to the 9/11 attacks after bin Laden’s highly suspect escape from Tora Bora in December 2001, and which has piled a further decade of misery on that already devastated country. What had happened was a wholly illicit and unjustified war in Iraq, pursued for purposes entirely unrelated to 9/11, but cynically sold to a frightened and credulous American public as an exercise in surrogate vengeance. We couldn’t find or reach bin Laden (no one ever explained why), but we had a new villain in Saddam Hussein to hunt and punish.
What has happened, now, is the opening of yet a third war front in Libya, where drone attacks have targeted another recycled villain in Moammar Qaddafi but have succeeded thus far only in killing one of his sons and three of his grandchildren, as we killed one of his daughters in an air assault 25 years ago. Our latest strikes, under the cover of North Atlantic Treaty Organization, have also hit a facility housing children with Down syndrome.
Yes, death rained down on us from the skies on 9/11. But did that empower us to blunder willfully and savagely from one country to another, with or without plausible provocation, and for our 3,000 lost lives in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington D.C., to kill, maim or displace millions, including the most helpless and innocent?
Between us and our belated vengeance against Osama bin Laden now lies a trail of blood and tears we can no longer hope to justify on any morally responsible ground. If the cheering crowds who responded to the news of his death showed that the wounds of 9/11 are still raw, they also show little if any sense of the horrific disproportion of our response to it. If we think that a single blow against us justifies indefinite war against any leader or people we choose to attack then we stand lawless, a greater threat to the community of nations than any we seek to impose our will on.
There are many unanswered questions about the attack on bin Laden, beginning with the obvious protection he enjoyed in Pakistan and proceeding to the hasty disposal of his body. There is the final irony that he himself was once on our payroll in Afghanistan, doing some of our wet work against the evil empire of the Soviet Union. But he himself had become almost irrelevant to the imperial rampage we have indulged ourselves in as the War on Terror, whose chickens have yet to come fully home to roost. His death reminds me not of the blood on his hands, but on ours.
Robert Zaller is a professor of history. He can be reached at [email protected].