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What does the Death of Osama Bin Laden Mean?

Updated on May 2, 2011

Does Bin Laden's Death Really Matter?

About fifteen minutes before I started to write this, I heard that Osama Bin Laden had reportedly been killed. This initially caught me completely off guard. Like many Americans, I had concluded some time ago that Bin Laden would someday die a peaceful death in some remote region of Pakistan. And even after he died, he might become a nebulous figure, with his enemies unsure for years if he was living or dead.

The big question, however, is what his death actually means. For several years, the world has rarely heard from Bin Laden, and few if any people believed that he was somehow directing the global jihad from a cave. So in purely practical terms, his death does not seem to matter very much. There are still plenty of terrorists out there, and it is possible that Bin Laden as a martyr could be more dangerous than a living Bin Laden in hiding.

We Americans, however, like to define the world in simplistic terms. Many seem to lump the wide variety of Islamic extremist groups into a single entity called, “Al Qaeda.” Still others reveal at least a limited recognition of the variety of terrorist groups by using the generic phrase, “with links to Al Qaeda.” As the symbolic head of this seemingly global, all encompassing group, Bin Laden became the big bad guy to whom we could unleash our feelings of fear, rage, sadness, and longing for justice. For a country that suffered so much as a result of 9/11, and has spent so much in terms of time, treasure, and lives in Afghanistan, the news of his death finally gives Americans something to celebrate.

But is it rational to take pleasure in his death or to see this news as a great victory? Just as we do with all celebrities in this country, are we paying too much attention to a famous person? On the one hand, I think that the answer is undoubtedly yes. But on the other hand, there is something to be said for symbolic victories. Bin Laden, in addition to symbolizing pure evil for many Americans, was an important inspirational symbol for those who wished to attack and defy the United States. As he survived year after year, it may have given others hope that they could do the same. Now, finally, The United States can hold him up as an example of what happens to those who carry out vicious attacks against the American people. You might be able to hide out (like a coward) in some caves for a while, but the day of reckoning will eventually come.

The problem is that this argument assumes that we are dealing with people who think as we do. When fighting against a movement largely fueled by people longing to die a martyr’s death, Bin Laden may now do more to inspire future attacks than deter them. And when dealing with people who often feel culturally obligated to avenge the deaths of friends and family, the killing of significant people will tend to lead to more killing.

I am not some sort of a pacifist or radical peace activist. I am glad that the bastard is dead. I recognize, however, that this so-called “War on Terrorism” is not going to be won purely with missile strikes, military invasions, and targeted assassinations. Ultimately, we need to seek out policies that minimize the number of people who are likely to resort to terrorism. If real political and economic reform emerges in North Africa and the Middle East, these changes may do more to weaken Al Qaeda than the death of its symbolic leader. As I have heard many analysts point out, one of the remarkable things about the “Arab uprisings” is Al Qaeda’s general irrelevance.

The trick, therefore, is for the United States to ally itself with the many people in the Muslim world who have no desire to be ruled by dictators or to die a martyr’s death. I recognize that this will not be easy, and there will be a strong temptation to stick with the old order for fear of an uncertain future. But if the Muslim world and American foreign policy continue on the same paths that they have followed for decades, I fear that a large number of “wanna-be” Bin Ladens will keep rising up to take his place.

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