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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