This past weekend, President Barack Obama was able to announce1 to the world that, ten and a half years after taking responsibility for the single worst day of attacks on American soil in our history, Osama Bin Laden had been killed.
I am not going to discuss the morality of killing Bin Laden. We are a nation which practices the death penalty, and whether the operation which finally caught up with Bin Laden would capture or kill him, he was going to die. At least this way, we will not be subjected to a mockery of a trial, as the world was given following the capture of Saddam Hussein2.
Some have made much of the fact that Bin Laden had been at the compound in Northern Pakistan which was assaulted on Saturday for some time, certainly long enough that JSOC3, the special forces unit directly answerable to the President which was designed around this sort of mission, had time to build and train in a replica of the compound for one full month. But I think that it's a simple answer to why, in the end, this turned out to be relatively easy.
Osama Bin Laden was a great many things, but I do not believe he could ever have been categorized a fool. He choose to attack in the manner in which he did in 2001 because he knew that in no way could Al-Qaeda stand up against the American Armed Forces. By taking principle responsibility for the attack, he put himself in our line of fire, he began living on borrowed time, and prepared himself for martyrdom.
For a time, there as clearly value in remaining alive to release statements and further antagonize the West, but in order to be a Martyr, it would eventually become necessary to die.
This is why I believe he had lived so long in North Pakistan with a relatively small retinue of defenders. When dealing with a strike team like JSOC, five militants would stand about as well as twenty, but it would be easier to live, and live in relative comfort with fewer. No doubt there were other activities in progress, training new leuitenants for instance. Plus, a martyr does not walk into death, they must wait for it to find them.
However, even if you don't believe, as I have come to, that this death was, in some way, prepared for by Bin Laden, there is no true victory in his death for us as a nation.
Ten years ago, we as a nation had certain harsh realities thrust upon us. It was demonstrated that we were not as insulated as we'd believed from the realities of global politics, or the terrible truth of the distrust and resentment created by our government's historic policy of convenient involvement in other nations' affairs. The world did not change that day, but American's view of our place in it certainly did.
And what do we have to show for it today? The death of an enemy for whom 66% of American's age 13-17 didn't even know who they were (which, if anything, shows just how irrelevant Bin Laden had become). The legacy of the PATRIOT Act. The formation of the TSA. Erosion of our civil rights. Three Middle Eastern wars, two of which were justified as linked to those September 11, 2001 attacks.
I do not mean to downplay the actions of JSOC and the SEAL team which is responsible for Operation Geronimo. It was a well executed military action, particularly that we only suffered the loss of a single helicopter to mechanical failure. They executed their assigned mission, by all accounts, professionally and expertly.
I am not even terribly concerned with the lack of respect for the deceased shown by the decision to dump the body into the sea, while attempts were being made to follow all other tenets of Islam surrounding the handling of the dead. The concern that Bin Laden's grave would become a place of pilgrimage for extremists was an understandable one, though the claim they couldn't find anyone to take the body is absurd, given the size of Osama Bin Laden's family.
I do not wholly misunderstand the jubilation felt by many at the news, particularly in the city of New York. I myself was in New York City, standing on the roof of the World Trade Center in July of 2011. When those towers fell I was awash in a surreal feeling over that experience. But I didn't know anyone who lost their lives in the attack. I haven't watched the growing health problems of the first responders. And I certainly haven't lived with a daily reminder of the tragedy in the form of a damaged skyline and gaping hole at ground zero.
No, I do not begrudge the celebration, especially in New York.
And while this will no doubt drive many in Al-Qaeda into a new level of fervor, improved communication and analysis of intelligence, disruption of what command structure Al-Qaeda has, and a new level of proactiveness and willingness to respond among Americans has greatly reduced their chances at success. Combined with the real and reasonble security improvements, it is untrue to say we have nothing to fear, but the risk is likely better mitigated today than at any time in our past.
I just can't help but think that, until we as a nation decide that we will not trade essential liberty for the illusion of security (and much of it has been illusion), than that enemy has still won. Terrorism is not defeated by killing terrorists. It is defeated by refusing to be terrorized.