The death of Osama and the return to reality

The death of Osama bin Laden brings up important questions about US foreign policy and wars in the Middle East.

Anti-War Protest
Seen from under New York’s Brooklyn Bridge, smoke rises from the rubble of the World Trade Centre [GALLO/GETTY]

My son Alessandro was only six weeks old when, holding him in my arms, I watched the second tower fall crashing to the ground from the safety of several miles distance. 

It was a surreal moment, while the smoky haze caused by the collapse of the first tower was just clearing when the remaining structure came crashing down. Looking at his big and still clueless eyes, I shuddered to consider the implications of what was already clearly a terrorist attack. But I knew neither of our lives would unfold as I’d imagined they would only an hour or so before. 

Over nine and a half years later and a continent away, Alessandro raced downstairs from his bedroom to watch Obama’s speech “so psyched” that he couldn’t go to sleep until we processed the implications of the killing of a man who defined our family’s life in ways he still cannot begin to imagine. 

A few tears dripped from my eyes as I recalled the sadness that enveloped the lives of all New Yorkers in the days and weeks after the attacks. 

A smell that still lingers 

The thing I remember most about the days and weeks after the 9/11 attacks was the smell of destruction that pervaded the air even across the East River in Queens. It was an unseasonably warm late summer, but we had to keep the windows closed to keep out the toxic fumes and the grey ash resulting from the intense fire caused by the Trade Centre’s destruction. 

The entrance of the Long Island Railroad Station in Bayside, Queens, where I was living, became a makeshift shrine and information board. Candles and photos of missing loved ones were everywhere, with handwritten pleas above photos imploring against hope and reason for information about their whereabouts. 

Of course, we all knew where they were—buried under 100 floors of rubble at what would be known from then on as Ground Zero. Walking several blocks away on Church Street, huge shards of what once was the instantly recognisable steel skeleton of the Trade Centre were jammed into the sides of buildings at 45 degree angles – as if they were thrown javelin-style by some awful giant from the site of the attacks.

It seemed that anyone vaguely Arab or Muslim-looking walked the streets of Manhattan with shoulders hunched and head bowed, bearing the stain of collective guilt for an event they of course had nothing to do with. Sikh residents of New York City quickly put up flyers explaining that their turbans did not mean that they were Muslim. 

Tourist shops along Canal Street began selling knock-off NYPD and NYFD paraphernalia to unsuspecting visitors hoping to contribute some money to funds being established for the victims of the attacks.

The war on terror as sport 

Almost ten years later, a chapter in US, indeed, global history, has been closed with the killing of Osama bin Laden. But as the intense protests against the building of a Muslim community centre near Ground Zero last year indicate, the legacy of the attacks will haunt society in the US for years to come. 

It’s hard to fault President Obama for his remarks announcing bin Laden’s killing. There was no smugness or cockiness, as President Bush was wont to display whenever he boasted of successes real or imagined. But the thousands of people who gathered outside the White House and around Ground Zero in New York had a much more Bush-like mood; one that indicates just how removed so many of us have become from the realities of not only the original attacks, but all that has happened since. 

Network coverage showed people driving around with US flags on their cars, the way sports fans do on the day of the big game. People were chanting “USA! USA!” like they did when the US beat the Soviet Union in that famous hockey game at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics. In New York, scores of young people, most too young to have experienced 9/11 in any meaningful way, sang the words to 1969 hit “Na Na Hey Hey, Kiss Him Goodbye,” which has also become ubiquitous at sporting events whenever victory for the home team is near. 

Commentators and celebrants alike were comparing the festive gathering of citizens to the end of conflict in World War Two, which produced such memorable celebrations on the streets of New York. But victory in the “War on Terror” is not near, not least because the war was never primarily about terrorism.

Instead, the Bush administration used the excuse of al-Qaeda’s attacks to radically reshape the political economy of the United States towards the kind of military-petroleum-finance-led system that Obama has found almost impossible to challenge – much to the detriment of the transformative agenda with which he entered office. 

As damaging as both the erosion of our constitutional freedoms, which in many cases the president has actually affirmed since taking office – and as Obama alluded to during his speech – the erosion of the sense of unity that every country needs to prosper in good times, and to rebuild a sense of purpose and vision in the wake of tragedy and violence. 

Hidden costs 

As with cheering on your favourite sports team, few if any people cheering for the cameras have been impacted personally by the September 11 attacks, or have had a personal stake in the “War on Terror”. The rowdiness of the cheers is almost in direct proportion to their distance from the sacrifice and suffering of those whose lives were shattered by the attacks – or the two-plus wars launched in its wake. 

The “War on Terror” has cost the US so much in lost liberties and rights, in the trillions of dollars that have been spent on everything associated with its prosecution instead of on things like rebuilding infrastructure and schools or creating a renewable energy economy. It has justified support for the ugliest of regimes across the Arab world for the sake of “stability” and support for the fight against al-Qaeda – even as these governments have systematically, and with US taxpayer help, violated the rights and freedoms in whose name the war has been prosecuted. 

But the vast majority of US citizens have little comprehension, or at least desire to acknowledge, all of these costs – even as they try to appropriate the pride of the all-too-few of them who have actually put their lives on the line to fight. As long as bin Laden remained alive and at large, the basic premise of the war could be subsumed beneath the banner of bringing him to justice. 

Now, however, the president, the political class, and the media – either along with them, or more likely in their absence – have an opportunity and an obligation to take an honest look at the policies that have governed the United States in the decade since bin Laden launched his deadly assault. They have the chance to remind the country that al-Qaeda is a monster the US government helped spawn and nourish, that Iraq was a war of choice whose terrible consequences far outstrip the death, destruction and financial losses caused by the 9/11 attacks, and that Afghanistan has been allowed to sink into almost incomprehensible corruption. 

Equally important, our politicians and pundits can explain how our support for corruption, autocracy and oppression in the name of stability and maintaining governments allied with us in the “War on Terror” was neither the only policy option available to the US in response to the attacks, nor by almost anyone’s measure outside of Washington and the mainstream US media, was it the wise and morally defensible choice. 

Observing history from afar 

Perhaps the most telling comment I observed in the wake of the announcement of bin Laden’s death was made by a young woman on CNN, who declared that it was like “an out of body experience to be so involved in history”. 

Of course, she would have needed an out of body experience to be “so involved in history”, precisely because – in fact – she was not at all involved in history. Rather, like most every other US citizen, she has been a passive observer of the history in which she grew up from a safe distance, with little incentive to engage in the hard work of actually participating in its shaping. 

At least those who have fought in the Iraq and Afghan conflicts have been more sombre in the celebration. “We can declare victory, call it over, and go home,” declared a former Marine interviewed by al Jazeera, a Marine who was among the first “boots on the ground” both in Afghanistan and then Iraq, and who now heads a veteran’s advocacy group pushing for a rethink on the US presence in Afghanistan. 

Shifting the burden of freedom

As great as the achievement of managing to find and kill bin Laden would be – despite what must have been significant efforts by a significant part of the Pakistani intelligence elite to protect him – president Obama could use this success to open a dialogue, reorient US policies in Afghanistan away from violence and towards a steady and determined pull-out of US forces, and a draw-down of the US military footprint across the Middle East and North Africa more broadly. 

The pro-democracy protests and uprisings that have swept the region from Morocco to Iraq are a far more effective weapon for combating Islamic extremism that even the most well-trained and courageous special forces teams will ever be. With bin Laden gone and most of the remaining first generation al-Qaeda leadership either dead, in custody or effectively out of the organisation’s operational loop, there is no longer any reason or justification for supporting the vicious crackdowns against these movements in Bahrain, Yemen and now, effectively, Syria – each in the name of “stability” or supporting so-called “allies in the War on Terror”. 

Doing so has been a great stain on the reputation of the US and its position in the Arab/Muslim world. Continuing such support in the wake of bin Laden’s killing after today’s accomplishment would be as strategically stupid as it would be morally unjustifiable and a waste of a grand opportunity. 

Of course, to engage in such a wholesale re-founding of US foreign policy would demand that Americans become part of a national conversation on the goal and values behind our foreign and military policies, and their still largely unacknowledged impact on every other aspect of US political and economic life. Sadly, if the news cycle surrounding the announcement of bin Laden’s death is any indication, the people of the US, or at least their corporate media minders, have little desire or stomach for such a development. 

Within a little over an hour of Obama’s speech to the nation, the main television networks had decided that there was nothing left to say, and programming returned to “Celebrity Apprentice”, “Desperate Housewives” and “Undercover Boss” on NBC and ABC and CBS. 

If one hour is all people feel is necessary to consider all the implications of bin Laden’s killing, and the gate keepers of our collective culture and community feel that a “return to regular programming” was the proper move after the only the briefest of analysis and discussion, the death of the al-Qaeda founder will, tragically wind up little more than a footnote in an ongoing set of wars that long ago lost their meaning and purpose.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.