Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Thoughts on the death of Osama bin Laden.

I'll begin this post with two disclaimers: First, this is not the post I intended to publish today; I gave some thought over the weekend to composing a post on the beatification of Pope John Paul II, but once I heard this news last Sunday night I knew that wasn't going to happen. Second, the post I actually did write - the one you're reading - has evolved considerably since I began work on it yesterday afternoon. My original intent was to focus solely on Realpolitik; since I spent most of my pre-Jesuit life thinking about politics, it should surprise no one that I can't help but think about events like this in political terms. Though politics remains the point of departure for this post, I found myself inevitably getting somewhat personal as I wrote and I decided that some of the personal stuff would have to stay in.

Whatever happens next in the War on Terror, the symbolic impact of Osama bin Laden's death is undeniable. Viewing photographs and video of the crowds that gathered late last night outside the White House, at Ground Zero, and at other locations throughout the United States, one can see the tremendous emotional impact that this news has had on a nation that is still suffering from the trauma of 9/11. Al-Qaeda's targets and victims have never been limited to any one country or national group, so I expect that strong emotional reactions to Bin Laden's death will be expressed throughout the world.

Looking towards the 2012 presidential election in the United States, it must be said that the successful strike against Bin Laden will make it much harder for any Republican challenger to credibly fault President Obama's record on national security issues. For better or worse, many future debates on the President's job performance (among pundits and ordinary citizens alike) will end with this rebuttal: "Yeah, but he got Bin Laden."

What does Bin Laden's death mean in Middle East and other regions where Islam plays a significant role in politics? Writing for Foreign Policy, George Washington University political scientist Marc Lynch argued yesterday that "al-Qaeda had already been effectively marginalized within the mainstream of the Arab world long before bin Laden died." Thanks to a link shared by a friend in New York, I also had the opportunity yesterday to read some thoughts on "What Bin Laden's death means to Muslims" from Dubai-based blogger Iyad el-Baghdadi:
To a Muslim, assessing the life of a man like Bin Laden is difficult. There are two Bin Ladens that we knew. The first was a devout Muslim who called for resistance against occupation. The second was a terrorist who called for violence against innocent people based on flimsy and contrived scriptural evidence.

People in the West (the U.S. in particular) may think that Bin Laden and al-Qaeda was all about them, but it wasn't. The organization he founded and headed, as well as the greater ideological movement to which he belonged, was yet another attempt by the Muslim world to get out of a rut. Some Muslims saw an answer in playing the political game; others in education and propagation. Yet others saw it in violence.

Much will be said and written, and most will be irrelevant. Because Bin Laden was made irrelevant in December 2010, when Muslim people discovered that they can achieve regime change through peaceful means, contradicting al-Qaeda's message that violence was the only solution.

People in the U.S. will celebrate, and people in the Muslim world will celebrate for very different reasons. Bin Laden's death just confirms that our world, the Islamic world, has entered a new phase in its history. New convictions are rising and getting confirmed, as old ones and their propagators are disappearing.
Speaking of celebrations in the United States, a lively debate has been going on regarding this topic over at Vox Populi, the blog of the Georgetown Voice. The crowd of thousands that gathered outside the White House in the early hours of Monday included many undergrads from my alma mater, leading one Vox Populi commenter to fault the Georgetown students who went to the White House for showing "a disgusting nationalist, jingoistic bloodlust I hoped to never see [come] out of my fellows Hoyas." This accusation of "jingoistic bloodlust" (typical Hoya rhetoric, by the way) unsurprisingly generated a lot of argument about whether or not the celebratory spirit of the gathering was appropriate. Here's how one participant responded:
I was also there, and the crowd was clearly not made up of just conservatives or military-hardliner types, and was not just college students. I think this was about many Americans very eager for something to celebrate in a time where things have looked so bleak lately with 2.5 wars and a still-awful economy.

For most I don’t think this was about bloodlust and celebrating death; it was about finally (if only symbolically) closing a chapter of the War on Terror that’s spanned basically all of our politically conscious lives.
The last line about how the War on Terror has "spanned basically all of our politically conscious lives" confirms the generation gap that already exists between my own cohort and today's university students. I graduated from Georgetown in May of 2001 and was a first-year law student at Notre Dame when the 9/11 attacks took place; at the same time, the above commenter and his contemporaries (including the students I now teach at SJU) were all in elementary school. You'll have to ask me what I think about this later on, as I'm still trying to decide what to make of it.

Of all the comments on the Vox Populi post referenced above, this one gave me the most to think and to pray about:
I’m from New Jersey. My best friend’s dad - a man who was basically my second father - died in the Twin Towers. To see how a family was destroyed after the attacks - via drug addiction, dropping out of school, and becoming utterly dysfunctional - was absolutely heartbreaking. The family that exists today isn’t even a replica of what existed ten years ago. And this isn’t a one-family situation - many people I’ve talked to from the New York/New Jersey area have seen very similar situations occur.

A few of my family members in the FDNY volunteered and helped that day. They risked their lives to help others without a second thought about what may happen to them or what may happen to their family members if they happened to pass away.

I went to the White House last night. I wasn’t celebrating Osama bin Laden’s demise. I was celebrating America.

Bin Laden’s death was symbolic for many reasons. For me, and for a lot of other people celebrating last night, it was a symbol that America cares. Ten years later, America is still trying to do whatever it can to make sure what happened to my friend’s family - and many families across America - never happens again.

I was celebrating that my government cares not only about politics and the nation, but about each citizen, each community, and each family. That’s a heck of a reason to celebrate.
What can I say to the above? What should I say to the above? I really don't know. At the very least, I cannot presume to pass judgment on those for whom the pain and trauma of 9/11 is still very raw.

What I can really do? I can recall my own 9/11 experience. I can remember to pray for the lives that were lost and for God's mercy upon those who brought about their deaths, but I can't pretend that this is an adequate response to the losses that the survivors and families of the victims have suffered.

Someday I hope that I'll be able to offer a better response to all this than the one I've offered above. In the meantime, though, I suspect that nothing I can offer is better than silence.


At 5/03/2011 1:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment is directed more towards your overall opinion on politics than about Osama Bin Laden. Actually, it really has nothing to do with Osama Bin Laden.....I just stumbled upon your blog yesterday, and have become fascinated by your Jesuit perspective blended with your pre-jesuit political background. Considering these factors, I am curious to heasr your response to this question: Do you believe gifted and sincere individuals can shape politics and in turn our world as (I believe) the framers of the Constitution intended, or has American Politics taken an irreversable route into an aristocracy with little importance placed on an individuals merit compared to financial standing and party backing?
Thank You

At 5/03/2011 5:23 PM, Blogger Joe said...


You're correct that your question has nothing to do with Bin Laden. For what it's worth, though, I don't accept the second premise contained in your question, i.e. that the "aristocracy" you speak of is something new. Debates about the influence of wealthy people and the role of political parties have been going on in since the early days of the Republic.

Though changes in the nature of political campaigning in recent decades have perhaps made questions about campaign financing a bit more urgent, money has always been an essential ingredient in U.S. political campaigns. As for party backing, the mobilization of common interests by political parties has been a feature of democratic politics throughout the world; one could raise questions about whether we are best served by a system with only two major parties, but on balance I would say that the party system has served us well.

As for the first part of your question, I would have to answer "yes" - gifted and sincere individuals can make a positive difference, though this is perhaps easier to measure at the local level than in national politics. I've seen it happen plenty of times in municipal and state-level elections, though it can happen nationally too (provided, of course, that the candidate in question has money and party backing and isn't simply gifted and sincere). I hope I've provided a satisactory answer to your question.

At 5/03/2011 6:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wouldn't you agree that democratic govt works best when there are multiple and diverse opinions paid attention to than just Dem. Vs. Rep?

At 5/03/2011 11:30 PM, Blogger Joe said...


Wouldn't you agree that democratic govt works best when there are multiple and diverse opinions paid attention to than just Dem. Vs. Rep?

Context matters a lot here, but some parts of the question also need to be unpacked a bit. You seem to presme that consideration of "multiple and diverse opinions" requires more than two major parties. In the U.S. context, each of the two parties functions as a sort of 'big tent' encompassing a range of ideological tendencies (even so, many voters still complain that there isn't enough difference between them!). True multi-party systems may have room for a wider variety of opinions, but that doesn't mean that all of them are heard or taken seriously. Of course, the question of what it means for a democratic government to "work best" also needs to be explored a bit more.

This is all a bit tangential given the point of the post, so I'd rather not keep going back and forth about it here - particularly with an interlocutor who has so far chosen to remain anonymous. If you're interested in pursuing these questions further with me, I'd suggest that you send me an e-mail.


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