Monday 2 May 2011

Why we shouldn't celebrate Osama's death

At 1am on May 2, 2011, Osama bin Laden was attacked at his compound in Pakistan by 20 to 25 helicopter-borne Navy SEALs. In a forty-minute operation Osama was shot in the face twice, killing him. The body was quickly dropped into the Arabian Sea.

The reaction in the West was euphoric. Celebrations broke out in the United States. The media were hardly more reticent and celebrated anything from the end of the 'War on Terror' to Obama's now allegedly guaranteed re-election. Osama bin Laden, that incarnation of evil, was finally gone.

I feel personally deeply uncomfortable with the cheering on of the targeted killing of a human being - any human being. At the risk of preaching: breaking forth in joy should never be our reaction to death. That we live in a world in which it may sometimes be necessary to kill other human beings is a terrible fact, one that ought to occasion a fundamental critique of the way we live on this earth. Joy at death is never justified, merely a symptom of our sickness. To gloat over the bodies of our dead enemies, of someone who has been hunted for years, is the opposite of humanity. Osama bin Laden, like Saddam Hussein before him, has been hounded to his grave and beyond, and that should lead to some deep soul-searching in a society that professes to be civilised.

That much is, I hope, uncontroversial; controversy follows. Osama bin Laden was not a demon, not evil incarnate. Fighting him was not some sort of historic challenge the West had to pass. He was a human being with hopes, dreams, fears and aspirations. His millennial outlook stemmed from an understanding of the history of the Middle East - specifically, the history of Western imperialism in the region. As he said in 2004, in the video address in which he first admitted to planning the 9/11 attacks:

Security is an important foundation of human life and free people do not squander their security, contrary to Bush's claims that we hate freedom. Let him tell us why we did not attack Sweden for example...
God knows it did not cross our minds to attack the towers but after the situation became unbearable and we witnessed the injustice and tyranny of the American-Israeli alliance against our people in Palestine and Lebanon, I thought about it. And the events that affected me directly were that of 1982 and the events that followed - when America allowed the Israelis to invade Lebanon, helped by the US sixth fleet.
In those difficult moments many emotions came over me which are hard to describe, but which produced an overwhelming feeling to reject injustice and a strong determination to punish the unjust.
As I watched the destroyed towers in Lebanon, it occurred to me punish the unjust the same way [and] to destroy towers in America so it could taste some of what we are tasting and to stop killing our children and women.

 Of course this is propaganda. But at its bottom is undoubtedly a real situation: namely, the Western partition of the Middle East that followed the First World War ('Our Islamic nation has been tasting the same for more than 80 years of humiliation and disgrace, its sons killed and their blood spilled, its sanctities desecrated', Osama said in 2001), and the sordid history of imperialism (first predominantly British, then chiefly American) that continues to this day. Osama's analysis is flawed: he assumes imperialism constitutes a 'crusading' assault on Islam, when it is really a question of economic interests and strategic paramountcy. From this incorrect analysis stems the viciousness and futility of al-Qaida's struggle. That real Western domination and subjugation of Muslims lay at the bottom of the Jihadist attacks was of course never acknowledged by the United States and its allies, who preferred to ascribe their enemies' determination to blind fanaticism. All this, of course, while massively adding to the grievances with the hundreds of thousands killed and millions displaced from Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries.

So here's my second reason for rejecting the joy at Osama bin Laden's death: it is another act of silencing the voices crying out in protest against the violent and continued suppression of the people of the Middle East. Osama bin Laden was never worthy of our respect. He was a ruthless mass murderer, but he became so in reaction to real injustices. We should feel uneasy about joining in the celebrations when the world's greatest power - the power that turned Iraq into a graveyard and even now aids in the suppression of pro-democracy uprisings in the region - kills one of its enemies. Osama was never a threat to 'the world'. Throughout the 'War on Terror' Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida were always the weaker party, hunted with the most modern weaponry. al-Qaida's weakening was always the likely outcome.

There is, however, hope in all this. As al-Qaida is becoming less relevant, the Middle East is being overtaken by democratic uprisings. Terrorism was the political and military expression of Middle Easterners' impotence and oppressed state; Tahrir Square is the expression of their coming to freedom - real popular freedom, not 'governance' at gunpoint, almost everywhere in defiance of the United States' wishes. It is good that Jihadism is taking a back seat; it is better that democracy has a chance of taking its place.


  1. I like your writing.

    I note that

    says that the 2004 video is a fake.

    my e-mail is

  2. Malte, interesting piece. I'd have to disagree with you that Jihad-militancy is finished - there's plenty of people still willing to fight and die for the glory of God and in defence of the Umma.

    The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt accomplished little of real value; Tunisia and Egypt merely replaced dictators for juntas. Libya is seperating back into Cyrenacia and Tripolitania through a tribal civil war, and Syria, Bahrain and the rest are cracking down on their own revolutionaries with increased military force.

    The evolution of the Arab world after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the withdrawal of European military powers is one of kings and dictators. It is natural that a backlash will come, but I am sceptical that this is the one that will change everything and usher in a new democracy. If it does - then that's good.

    As for Bin Laden's assassination and civilisation... well, that'll be a topic for conversation when we next meet, mensch!

  3. Hey Pat,

    I didn't mean to say that Jihadism was finished as a whole - I don't think it is. I just think that it is taking a backseat (hopefully permanently) to democratic revolutions. I also don't think the revolutions will solve everything, indeed several have been crushed. But neither do I think they haven't accomplished anything. Sure, Egypt has a military junta now, but said junta has lost conflicts with the democracy movement several times. They tried and failed to ban protests and strikes; they were forced to arrest Mubarak. I think Egypt is wide open (the same can't necessarily be said for Tunisia, even though they have revolutionaries as members of government).

    It'll be good to discuss assassination and civilisation, old chap!

  4. Anonymous: I've checked, and we're not talking about the same video. I mean this one, from October 2004: It appears to be generally accepted as authentic (Wikipedia doesn't source the claim that intelligence services confirmed the authenticity, although CNN says so: