Saturday, May 7, 2011

rip osama bin laden

For some reason, a large number of Americans seem to find the death of Osama bin Laden cathartic. Now, I'm no friend of islamic fundamentalism, and 9/11 has cast a long long shadow over my life and thoughts, but I have a hard time feeling anything other than ambivalence about Osama's demise.

For one thing, glee at the death of someone else, no matter how "evil," seems in poor taste. More significant, however, is the mistake of thinking Osama was the enemy, or the ultimate cause of 9/11.

9/11 was caused by ideas—the radical fundamentalist muslim idea that the murder of non-believers is permitted + the terrorist's central idea that creation of fear in one's enemy is a means of bringing about political change. If I'm going to feel some kind of catharsis about 9/11, if I'm going to feel "we did it!" or "at last!" or "victory!", then it's only going to occur when I see evidence we've done something to combat these ideas. Are there fewer people today who hate the US? Who think that violence against citizens of the US is both permitted and righteous? Who believe that the suppression of alternate belief systems is both permitted and righteous? If there's evidence to this effect, then I haven't seen it.

With respect to the death of bin Laden itself, the source of my ambivalence is uncertainty about the effect of his death, and the manner in which it was achieved, on the propagation of these dangerous ideas. Whatever guidance (financial, conceptual, or spiritual) bin Laden gave to al Qaeda and related terrorist elements, the fact of the matter is that terrorist acts require hardly any resources at all. Bombs can be built in the kitchen from household chemicals. The most important commodity for terrorism is willingness. If the (manner of the) death of bin Laden creates a greater willingness in potential terrorists to carry out violent acts / sacrifice their personal wellbeing in the name of islam, then it is not a victory, but a mark of increased danger for the American people.

Of course, I already think the real dangers of terrorist attacks are overblown—I'm not advocating public fear here or (heaven forbid!) increased security measures of any kind. The point is that this is a question we should be asking ourselves. If your glee at the death of bin Laden is simple revenge fulfillment, fine, I sympathize. But if you think it has somehow reduced the terrorist threat, lessened the influence of radical islamic ideas, or made America safer, then you presume to a far greater insight into the psychology of the muslim world than I do.