The Public Humanist

Bin Laden is Dead, and I’m not feeling so good myself

I get that Usama Bin Laden’s death is a big deal, and mostly a good thing. I was around for the 9/11/01 attacks, had friends at the World Trade Center and Pentagon that day (thankfully none hurt), and watched with reasonably mature eyes the sense of tragedy here in the US after that day and the events that unfolded in the Middle East and elsewhere as a result of that day. Indeed, I can go further. As a specialist in Arab politics and a professor at a large public university that sent students to war in the region I study, I was far more wrapped-up in Usama Bin Laden’s influence over the past decade than the average American. I agree that US forces’ success at tracking down this man is an important step in the direction of reducing the influence of al-Qaeda.

And yet, it’s hard for me to know what to make of young students and Americans more generally cheering and chanting in the aftermath of Bin Laden’s killing.

Part of me wants to chill out, and not take this too seriously. After all, when it comes at least to my own U. Mass. campus, I know that the weekend just after classes end is one of partying and raucous behavior that isn’t necessarily typical for most students. I can see how the aftermath of a weekend of fun, followed by a close playoff defeat for the area basketball team might flow rather naturally into the late night festivities that erupted when Bin Laden’s death was announced. So it’s not exactly the New England prude in me that feels a little queasy around the chants of “USA, USA” that echoed here in Amherst and in many other places that young adults congregate.

Nor am I exactly shocked by the nationalism and all the analogies I could make with assemblies in more repressive political systems. True, as a political scientist and lawyer who spends much of my time in diverse, non-Western societies, monotone nationalist chants raise all sorts of unsavory, even frightening analogies, and I’m sure I would have felt plenty uncomfortable had I been in the midst of a crowd of people intoning the same vapid slogan. However, I can understand that, for lots of Americans, whether or not they were aware of how much our country and the world changed as a result of Bin Laden’s 9/11 provocation, finding and neutralizing Bin Laden was a matter of national pride. And the sense that Avowed Public Enemy of the US #1 gone definitely inspires a feeling of relief, which gets amped up to enthusiasm when coupled with the action movie description of how US special forces got to Bin Laden.

And yet… I remain queasy. One part of this is the international legal and diplomatic problems. Assuming that the Pakistani government permitted the particular intrusion into Pakistani territory, whether killing Bin Laden was necessary or justifiable may be problematic in international law. And wouldn’t it have been better to have spared Bin Laden’s life and allowed him to stand trial, either in the US or an international criminal forum? I certainly think so.

The diplomatic issues are more vexing for me. Pakistan is a very important country that has had severe political problems in recent years. Pakistani internal stability is significant for India, Afghanistan and the Islamic world more generally. While most Pakistanis are unlikely to shed tears over Bin Laden’s death, some may understandably find callous the Americans’ triumphalism over a high-profile US operation on Pakistan’s sovereign territory. At the very least, the fact that Bin Laden was hiding in a Pakistani town that was hardly peripheral suggests diplomatic challenges for US-Pakistani relations concerning how much Pakistan can or will combat al-Qaeda on its soil.

In the end, though, concerns about Pakistan are not my primary problem with turning Bin Laden’s death into an American patriotism party. Rather, what bothers me most is the focus away from the Arab world and Arab politics. Back some years ago when I was teaching students who were already teenagers when 9/11 happened, my classes evinced some surprise when confronted with perspectives and evidence that a major aim of al-Qaeda was the replacement of Arab governments with more militant versions of Islamist regimes.

I feel like a similar, and much more hopeful, lesson has been lost on today’s youthful revelers. This is, Bin Laden’s death is perhaps most significant as a symbol of the waning in influence of the particularly confrontational strain of Arab politics that al-Qaeda embodied. The ongoing Arab movements for political freedom have developed largely free of anti-Western rancor or militant Islamism. Instead, they have pushed internal political liberalization and justice, and brought together a variety of idealistic citizens throughout the Arab world, often across religious or other lines of division.

Although I know it’s too much to ask, I wish instead of chants of “USA, USA,” commemoration of the end of Bin Laden could take the form of happy slogans around “Arab freedom” or “Middle Eastern democracy.” In my own vision, at least, a true cause for American students to party would be the common ground they might find with their equally youthful counterparts in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, who have shown courage in defying repressive rulers, rather than a more knee-jerk sort of nationalism that doesn’t necessarily take stock of what people from so many countries, including the US, have given up in the aftermath of Usama Bin Laden and hopefully his equally doomed methods.

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