In defense of understanding (#OBL)

I received an email from a friend saying he was waiting for Obama to make a speech. It was 10 pm on a Sunday, East Coast, and he was in Central time – not a usual speaking hour.

Minutes later I got a New York Times New Alert saying Bin Laden had been killed. We hunted for a local NPR station – or any radio that wasn’t playing country or metal (we were in the woods of New Hampshire, driving back from a day of climbing) – while we speculated on what could have happened.

Eventually we found some radio hosts talking about it. Obama had been scheduled to speak at 10:00, then 10:30, then 11:00…and in the intervening time, our hosts were waxing poetic about what this means for America! Freedom! Democracy! Righteous Goodness! The demise of all things evil in the world! Their emotional, if misguided, rants were interspersed with “reports from the White House,” which for the most part consisted of #reasonsObamawaslate (he was fine-tuning his speech) and coverage of the masses gathered outside the White House, waving flags and chanting “USA! USA! USA!” (It’s too bad we don’t have a particularly good soccer team, otherwise we should have found them some vuvuzelas and relocated them to the next site of the World Cup.)

Finally Obama began: a small team of soldiers (Navy SEALs) raided a mansion in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on Sunday morning Pakistan time. (I’m sure we all heard the speculation regarding Obama’s hearty good mood at the Correspondents’ Dinner the previous evening.) Osama Bin Laden was killed, no civilians were hurt, no Americans were lost, and the United States had custody of the body. Bing bang boom, cut and dried, the way I like my assassinations.

I later heard they had spent about a year tracking him and planning this assassination. For Obama, it seemed to be a tactical political move, cementing (or at least improving) his incumbent election bid. And Obama behaved, in my opinion, completely appropriately. Somber announcement of the death of an enemy, disposing of his body in a militarily acceptable way, and refusing to bow to the “deathers’” pressure to see the body first hand. The administration has been respectful and has not overblown the affair.

No sweeping pronouncements about the end of the War on Terror, no sweeping pronouncements about the end of the war in Afghanistan, no sweeping pronouncements about the end of hatred of America.

Mainstream journalists and civilians, on the other hand, have been more than prolific in their rampant, mostly-idiotic speculations about what this means. Does this mean terrorism is dead? Is the War on Terror over? Will Al Qaeda disband? Will other terrorist groups, influenced by Al Qaeda, disband? Will Muslims like America? Is Islam dead? Will extremism cease to exist?

Let me pause. If you think these are questions with legitimate answers (or, if you think they are legitimate questions, really, based in understanding and knowledge of the world outside your white picket fence), please stop reading now, and go to this website.

The only legitimate question I did hear asked, and this was on Al Jazeera and among lefty, non-mainstream print and electronic journalists, was: “Will anything change at all?” And I believe the answer to that is, other than Obama’s poll ratings, absolutely nothing at all. Terrorism still exists, hatred still exists, and in a less ideological train of thought, the Taliban still exist in Afghanistan. Whew, wouldn’t want to exit two wars in a presidential term.

And the rhetorical War on Terror, Islam, the Arab & Persian worlds, the Orient as a whole, is not over. Bin Laden did not singlehandedly orchestrate the September 11 attacks. He did not singlehandedly hijack three planes. He did not invent terrorism, and he did not invent hatred of the United States. These latter two phenomena are a product of a global system that breeds inequality, a power balance that heavily favors the US and has no internal method to rectify the imbalance or treat its symptoms. Terrorism and hatred are a symptom of a problem but, though problematic, not the problem itself. In a way, terrorism exists because of a shared perception of global inequality, and a terribly misguided notion about how to rectify it.

Rami Khouri of Lebanon’s Daily Star said it best, and most simply, when being interviewed on Al Jazeera: “the problem is inequality in the region.” Inequality fueled by American dominance, fueled by Western favoritism (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel), fueled by the nature of the natural resources trade in a global capitalist system, fueled by historical imperialism and colonialism in the region (British, French), and fueled by war-mongering and an imposed self-righteous superiority. To think the problem is anything more or anything less – say, “hatred of America” – is neglectful of the circumstances that have cultivated this hatred, and it is ignorant and dismissive of the effects an imbalance of power, even a perceived imbalance, can have on the collective mindset.

The War on Terror and its offspring (Afghanistan, Iraq, even Libya in a way) are part of a larger political war of attrition against millions of people who are subject to a global system of injustice and inequality and have always gotten the fuzzy end of the lollipop. It is a hot and a cold war against a region whose seemingly-eternal subjugation under American political, military, and economic dominance and interventionism – not to mention a history of Western and European colonialism and imperialism – is a root cause of regional social injustice and inequality, where terrorism is symptomatic, not causal.

We see #OBL’s and Al Qaeda’s (and many others’) rhetoric and violence as baseless, unfounded, and irrational loathing for “our way of life,” because we innately believe in our manifest destiny, our right to do what we want to the exclusion of everyone else, the criminality of the other. We see this mindset as the cause, not as the symptom of global inequality. The War on Terror is a PR War with a militant wing, and it isn’t over.

I always come back to that quote in Casablanca when Victor Laszlo describes the Resistance as an amorphous union of shared belief (my words). The Nazis can kill him, but they cannot kill the Resistance.

“And what if you track down these men and kill them, what if you killed all of us? From every corner of Europe, hundreds, thousands would rise up to take our places.”

Now, of course, Osama Bin Laden is no Victor Laszlo. But the concept is the same; one man might be a leader (Laszlo) or a financier (Bin Laden) or some combination of the two (Bin Laden), but no movement of belief can be destroyed by destroying one man.

We began learning this in 2001 when we went into Afghanistan; Al Qaeda is a disconnected network of cells, not a personality cult built around Bin Laden (well, it might be that too, but it is primarily a network of independent cells). We are learning there will always be another man, another group, another ideology, that is ready and willing to take its place.

If we believe killing Bin Laden will destroy terrorism and hatred, we do not understand the world, nor do we understand the nature and causes of hatred. Outwardly and collectively celebrating Bin Laden’s death is only a sign of our own hatred, our own intolerance, and perpetuates his legacy. The correct answer to hatred is not, nor has ever been, nor will ever be, more hatred.

(I find it heartbreakingly ironic; we are taught from birth to love, to accept, to embrace difference, yet over the course of our lives we are injected with hatred, and we are retrained to reject and to destroy.)

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7 thoughts on “In defense of understanding (#OBL)

  1. It’s doesn’t matter to you that Osama was unarmed and unresisting when shot dead?

  2. Bin Laden, two others didn’t fire on SEALs: sources
    By Mark Hosenball WASHINGTON | Thu May 5, 2011 7:10pm EDT
    WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Only one of four principal targets shot dead by U.S. commandos in the raid which killed Osama bin Laden was involved in any hostile fire, a person familiar with the latest U.S. government reporting on the raid told Reuters on Thursday.
    The account of Monday’s daring 40-minute raid has new descriptions of the event, including that Navy SEALs shot an occupant of the compound who they thought was armed, but apparently was not.
    It confirms that bin Laden was not armed when he was shot dead, nor are there indications that he directly threatened his attackers, according to the first source and a second U.S. government source who is familiar with briefings on the raid. …
    http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/05/05/us-binladen-raid-idUSTRE74482G20110505

  3. FOX NEWS / NEWSCORE Last Updated: 1:50 PM, May 5, 2011 Posted: 1:49 PM, May 5, 2011
    More Print ABBOTTABAD, Pakistan — Osama bin Laden was within reach of two weapons when US forces found him in the main building of his compound in northern Pakistan, FOX News Channel reported Thursday.
    A senior US official also said only one of the five people killed in the raid was carrying a weapon and firing.
    The detail seemed at first to diverge from White House accounts that said the Navy SEALs encountered resistance throughout the raid and were engaged in a firefight during much of the 40-minute operation.
    However, an official described the scene as chaotic, with US forces encountering barricades and withstanding attacks from women in the compound.
    Though bin Laden was unarmed, FOX was told earlier in the week that he appeared to be reaching for a weapon before he was fatally shot. The senior US official confirmed Thursday that bin Laden was near the door along with the two weapons — an AK-47 and a Makarov hand gun, which are now in US custody.
    The sole shooter in the al Qaeda leader’s Pakistani compound was quickly killed in the early minutes of the commando operation.
    Another US official said there were “at least a half-dozen weapons” found at the compound. The first person the SEALs encountered at the guest house “immediately opened fire” before being killed, the official said. As the SEALs moved through the compound, bin Laden’s son Khaled rushed down from the third floor to the second floor and confronted the SEALs, who killed him.
    The US team, in their training, had anticipated that bin Laden had a suicide vest and that the house was rigged. The official bristled at the notion that the compound was somehow an easy target with reports that only one person was armed.
    “He was the one guy shot who had a gun in his hand and was firing when he was shot — other weapons were at the scene,” the official said. “When the SEALs reached the third floor, after resistance and physical barricades, Osama bin Laden did not immediately surrender. When someone like OBL who has said he wants to kill as many Americans as possible, doesn’t 150 percent surrender, you have to assess as a threat.”
    Another official said details have become clearer now that the Navy SEAL assault team has been debriefed. The team returned home to the US Wednesday.

  4. “Subject: More details: UBL appeared to be reaching for weapon/ 10 family members were in the room
    Per Griffin and Fishel @ DoD:
    A senior U.S. official tells Fox Bin Laden may have been reaching for a weapon before he was shot. “It appeared as if he was reaching for a weapon.” That act, it turns out, appears to be the “resistance” that he is said to have put up.
    10 family members were in the room with Bin Laden, several young non-adult age children as well as one of his wives. WH Spokesman Jay Carney said in the briefing today the wife lunged toward the SEALs and she was shot in the leg.
    EDIT: Carney also said during the briefing that Bin Laden was unarmed. He did not mention that Bin Laden appeared to be reaching for a weapon, we are getting that from a senior U.S. official.
    Justin Fishel Fox News Channel Pentagon Producer

  5. I assume you read the Chomsky piece, so I know you are thinking about whether Osama being killed instead of “apprehended” is close to the center of the phenomenon you comment upon.

  6. Chomsky’s Follies
    Ice Flows
    “Being a Terrorist Is Not a Stigma Forever”
    Those are Slate’s offerings on MSN’s front page last night and right now. Chomsky is being punished for that statement you cited. I’m guessing. I didn’t look at it.
    Finkelstein’s book title on Cast Lead, quoting an Israeli official: “This Time We Went Too Far”. Now Chomsky has caught up with his protoge.

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