Posted on Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011 at 3:22 am
Author: Feature Writer
Gc contributor: Mary-Beth Snow
“No one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We’re always one of Us. It’s Them that do the bad things.” – Terry Pratchett
Osama bin Laden, perhaps the world’s most hated man, is dead. There are few who would mourn him. Republican politician and Fox News talking head Mike Huckabee declared “welcome to hell, bin Laden.” Outside the White House and at Ground Zero last night, crowds of Americans celebrated the demise of their enemy, chanting “U.S.A, U.S.A.” like they had won a sporting match. And perhaps they had; for those watching from the safety of their couches, the War on Terror could have appeared as just another sporting event, a decade-long tournament spanning the globe. America versus Al Qaeda. Or perhaps it was that great American movie genre they had been watching, the Western. The bad guy had been vanquished, justice had been served. Roll credits.
For the two weeks following the September 11 attacks, the U.S response to terror was codenamed “Operation Infinite Justice.” Though it was quickly changed to “Operation Enduring Freedom” in response to Muslim objections (“infinite justice” is reserved for God), the phrase has lingered, haunting the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. 8 years ago, President Bush stood upon an aircraft carrier and declared “mission accomplished,” but it was not. Last night in his speech, President Obama repeatedly iterated that the operation to kill bin Laden was an action to “bring him to justice.” Justice. Infinite justice.
What kind of a justice is this? In his book Ground Zero, philosopher Paul Virilio wrote, “We are always one war behind, for there are not yet experts in global terrorist war, even amongst the terrorists.” Fighting nation-states like Afghanistan and Iraq was a mistake from the start, an attempt to re-fight older wars that showed up in the warmed over Cold War rhetoric about the “Axis of Evil” (Reagan’s “Evil Empire” mashed-up with World War II’s Axis powers). But Arundhati Roy had it right in late September 2001 when she said that
What we’re witnessing here is the spectacle of the world’s most powerful country reaching reflexively, angrily, for an old instinct to fight a new kind of war. Suddenly, when it comes to defending itself, America’s streamlined warships, cruise missiles and F-16 jets look like obsolete, lumbering things. As deterrence, its arsenal of nuclear bombs is no longer worth its weight in scrap. Box-cutters, penknives, and cold anger are the weapons with which the wars of the new century will be waged. Anger is the lock pick. It slips through customs unnoticed. Doesn’t show up in baggage checks.
There is no nation-state safe enough that a team of fanatics willing to die cannot inflict significant civilian casualties, none. Having accomplished the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. found to its surprise that it was not universally welcomed as liberators, that the streets of Kabul and Baghdad did not flow with gratitude as did those of Paris in 1945.
What is the cost for this single death? Estimates of the Iraqi body count range between approximately one hundred thousand to one hundred and nine thousand. The civilian body count in Afghanistan, as far as I’m aware, is unknown. How how many deaths, mostly unknown and ungrieved by Americans, were justified by the traumatic, horrific events of that day? Do they, too, deserve this kind of justice? What kind of horrors will the survivors of those dead inflict?
Roy points out that “bin Laden was sculpted from the spare rib of a world laid to waste by America’s foreign policy,” that he was funded from the CIA to help the Cold War efforts in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, that there have been countless other deaths as the result of U.S. backed and funded wars, corrupt governments, dictators. It is hard not to wonder what has been sculpted from this war, and when it will come.
In the United States, the cost of the two wars to the United States has been over 1.26 trillion dollars for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. That cost has been borne by the nation by the cuts to the social services of the state needed to foot such an extraordinary bill (the other, of course, being the tax cuts demanded by the same wealthy elite making money from war profiteering). What could 1.26 trillion have paid for? How many schools, hospitals, university programs? All those services have been savaged over the last decade, and indeed even the 9/11 first responders health care bill was fiercely contentious, and opposed at one point by the ever-patriotic Senate GOP.
President Obama talked movingly about “the empty seat at the dinner table. Children who were forced to grow up without their mother or their father. Parents who would never know the feeling of their child’s embrace.” What is justice to someone who has lost a loved one? Is it vengeance, the deaths of the perpetrators? Maybe. But is it also the right to having a life that will flourish in the wake of that tragedy, the right to education and healthcare, the right to not merely live but live well?
Another part of the domestic cost, ironically, was that freedom turned out to be not so enduring in the United States in the 9/11 aftermath, from the Patriot Act to the scandal that is Guantanomo Bay to the ever-increasing TSA security measures when flying. When will the restrictions on civil rights of the War on Terror era be lifted? Or do they infinitely recede too?
Fighting a war on terror – an emotion – was an impossibility, and it always was. To focus on the “achievement” of Osama bin Laden’s death is to miss the forest for a single tree, and to indeed to ignore the way in which the Arab Spring has far more profoundly shown that the path to liberation lies in ecumenical non-violent resistance and not terrorism. Osama bin Laden’s death, like that of Saddam Hussein, might have a few people sleeping more soundly tonight. But the War on Terror was never about the fight to kill a single man, however evil, it was about the struggle for the world’s most powerful nation to control its own fear.
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