By Megha Ram
A Nation in Triumph
Soon after Osama bin Laden’s death was announced on May 1st, social media erupted with reactions. These reactions have been largely positive, to say the least, concerning the death of the man behind the 9/11 attacks; statements like “I have never been so happy to see two bullets in a man’s head” and “I hope he rots in hell” are typical.
Bin Laden’s death is defensible as a form of retributive justice for the victims of 9/11, and it is likely that many of these seemingly celebratory reactions are people not rejoicing in death, but rather in relief that a dangerous man can no longer perpetrate violent acts of terrorism. This is truly an important step against terrorism; however, a problem arises when these celebratory reactions take the form of macabre jubilee over death. It is entirely possible to stand in solidarity with the victims and families of 9/11 without contributing to an environment of delight in killing. This is made evident by the people who have been debating the ethics of killing and questioning why bin Laden was not taken alive and given a trial to expose his many crimes. The fact that these debates have been overshadowed by such knee-jerk elation is disconcerting.
Furthermore, it can be dangerous to appear to be celebrating a man’s death, even if we are simply feeling relief that a dangerous man can no longer cause suffering. If the reaction is perceived as American exceptionalism or callous celebration of death, it may turn bin Laden into a martyr in the eyes of terrorist organizations and incite them to further violence. This in turn would create a domino effect and perpetuate a cycle of retributive violence. Perhaps this is a necessary risk to take, but the concern is that these questions are not even being addressed.
The Future of the War
Bin Laden’s death was also instrumental in changing opinions about the war — it took no more than the five seconds it takes to say “Osama bin Laden is dead” for people to begin heralding this event as the end of the war. According to a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll, 6 out of 10 Americans are calling for US withdrawal from Afghanistan, and while there are a plethora of reasons to end the war, ending it solely because of bin Laden’s death has unsettling implications. It implies that an entire war was fought and thousands of lives were lost in order to find and kill one man. Bin Laden’s death is certainly an important step in eliminating a source of future terrorist action, but his death is not the same as the death of terrorism, and destroying bin Laden is not the same as destroying a terrorist organization. Thus, it is important to guard against false optimism about the fate of terrorism; the fight against extremist ideals and the violent actions they beget is far from over.
Bin Laden’s death leaves us with more loose ends than conclusions and more questions than answers. Will al-Qaeda or other terrorist organizations retaliate? Will al-Qaeda leadership and goals change? Will the U.S.-Pakistan relationship change? These questions may not have immediate answers, but it is important that we ask them, and in doing so look at the real impact and repercussions of bin Laden’s death. In this way, we affirm ourselves as conscious and patriotic citizens by embracing the democratic ideals of questioning and critical discourse.