The most wanted man in the world was hunted down and killed in the dead of night May 1, 2011. What kind of obituary is appropriate for such a man, what kind of reckoning begins to do justice to his impact on contemporary history? The face of terror has just been taken down, what should we do now?
Osama bin Laden was the first global terrorist. No terrorist in history so powerfully confronted a great power as bin Laden confronted the United States. From the beginning of his jihad against us, he stated that his aim was to bankrupt the United States by drawing it into wars it could not win. In several of his videos, he bragged that he had only spent $500,000 on the 9/11 attacks against the Trade Towers and the Pentagon and lost only a few men. In response to this singular act, the U.S. has waged major wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, spent trillions of dollars, lost thousands of soldiers, and has no termination of either in sight. Our very presence in the Middle East spawns the very revolt we seek to conquer.
Bin Laden impacted domestic politics in America as powerfully as he impacted its international relations. 9/11 changed the American political and social landscape. For as long as we have been in Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans have been governed by a national security state codified by the Patriot Act. Americans have been forced to endure heightened security, systematic abridgments of constitutional rights, and the stripping of social support networks as the "emergency financial management" necessary for a nation so indebted that it is now on the verge of collapse, largely because of its profligate borrowing and massive military expenditures. It now spends more on its military than the rest of the world combined. The war on terror bin Laden triggered has come at an excruciating and extremely high cost.
In so many ways, the U.S. fell into bin Laden's trap. A single individual challenged an empire with an impact and consequence that will be with the world for some time. This magnitude of impact by a single individual against a sovereign super state is without precedent in the annals of history.
Bin Laden was enabled to confront the world's greatest power because of his maximal use of the forces and capacities engendered by globalization. He showed that networks can challenge nations. Because of globalization, all of us now have access to virtually complete information, we have the capacity to communicate with almost anyone anywhere, and we have the ability to form voluntary networks of aligned individuals both locally and globally. With only a few million dollars, Osama bin Laden created his army of commandos hidden within a shadowy matrix of indirection and intrigue. He was everywhere and yet he was invisible. He hit where he willed but offered no target in return. His final choice of a hideout in Abbottabad exemplified the mastery of his genius -- for five years he remained completely hidden in plain view.
Perhaps his ultimate dark achievement was in seducing the United States to become what it was founded not to be. The U.S. was founded as a light unto the world, a beacon of freedom and human rights to the nations, a people called to a higher standard of morality and comportment. When the White House told the story of how "justice was served," as President Obama framed bin Laden's assassination, the narrative was of rendition in Eastern Europe, where the use of torture enabled U.S. intelligence officials to track bin Laden's courier, and then the open assassination of bin Laden himself, said to be unarmed. These actions came after over 200 years of official U.S. policy forbidding the use of torture or assassination. Actions long considered immoral and outside civilized behavior have now been broadcast to the entire world as what the United States officially sanctions in the "war on terror." Thus the bookend to 9/11. Thus the symmetry between the beginning and end of that tragic era - fire for fire, tooth for tooth.
The stark truth we must face is that we have shown ourselves to be no better than he was. There were none righteous in this plot just completed, none. Let us at least admit that about ourselves. It is in this profound sense that while the U.S. managed to kill his body, Osama bin Laden managed to subvert America's soul.