Monday, May 2, 2011

The Death of an Enemy

The gestation period for revenge is 9 years, 7 months, 20 days. Or for justice. Or for closure. However you read the death of Osama bin Laden, it took about twice as long as the Manhattan project to go from notion to completion. We messed it up once before - in November 2001, just two months after the attacks of September 11th, we failed to capture him in a battle at Tora Bora. We have kept a military presence in Afghanistan since then, with it escalating over the past several years into counterinsurgency against a resurgent foe. We went chasing other demons abroad, declared that we had found one in Iraq and embroiled ourselves in a regime change there as well. For just shy of a decade, the man who twice bombed the World Trade Center evaded capture, to the point that seven years after 9/11, prioritizing his capture became a presidential campaign promise. It became the stuff of far-ranging speculation (not to discredit these guys - their approach to the problem was both novel and damn close to accurate). And yet, here it is, the death of America's Most Wanted.

Other people have more interesting and informed accounts of what his death mean. Here's my favorite of the facty ones, in ten bullet points. Here's my favorite emotional reaction read, in lots of words. And here's my least favorite spot-on response, in 140 characters: "Recall, this is a huge operation, a huge cost (over $1 trillion since 9/11/01) to get an elderly man on dialysis in a small town in Pakistan"

The 9/11 attacks cost $500,000. That's chump change to pay if the goal, as it was stated in later years, was US bankruptcy. What bin Laden did was unquestionably an act of evil. But it was one that provoked something very much like an allergic reaction - in responding to one threat, the US spent over a trillion. We as a nation failed to adequately respond to the threat. Not that we didn't respond - we did, with excess and paranoia and jingoism and two wars, one relatively justified and one entirely superfluous. We surrendered civil liberties, made air travel a farcical exercise in security theater, and justified torture and indefinite detention of people who we maybe had evidence on. We ignored large swaths of the constitution and made ourselves less safe. The way we responded to 9/11 was all out of proportion. Hunting down the criminal took a year of intelligence work, the cooperation of Pakistan's government, and a strike team consisting of exceptional skilled men in boots on the ground.

What this means going forward comes from the writer at Transitionland with, I think, the best short statement of the impact this will have:
To be clear on Osama bin Laden's death: 1) I wish he had been captured alive. 2) His death isn't a blow to the Taliban, because his life was pretty irrelevant to the post-2001 Taliban. 3) For better or worse, bin Laden's death will be used to cement US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
This isn't really a moment about that future, though. This is a reconciliation with a long overdue past. In late September 2001, my uncle wondered "why are we focusing on getting the messenger, instead of getting the message?" I was 12 when this happened, and never particularly clear on the message we were supposed to get (was it that America must acknowledge bin Laden's demands? was it that we were responsible for generic capitalist unpleasant byproducts in the world at large that turn people against us?).

I like to think it was "maybe the US should stop explicitly supporting autocrats so that radicals direct their frustration with domestic politics outwards at us," which I like to think it was, and we did. It is still supremely satisfying to know that, at the very least, we have reached a moment of closure, if not exactly a moment of justice.

Amidst the immediately jubilant atmosphere of last night, a couple of friends, posting in various places, quoted the same line of scripture, which is especially fitting for the moment. "Rejoice not when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles. Proverbs 24:17"

This is a time of closure, a awareness that this worst moment of the last decade is, finally, over.