It’s probably best to write about Osama bin Laden now, because in strategic terms, he has been irrelevant for some time. Al Qaeda and Islamist terrorism will go on without him. He is dead; there will be no protracted business with incarceration and trial. He was one man, rendered largely impotent in his chosen profession by the need to hide and minimize his contacts with the outside world. Bin Laden himself was defeated years ago, carried out with a tide he could not swim against. The truth is that there will be no need to keep talking about him in the coming days. So now is the time to write.
The president gave a fine speech tonight: short, to the point, and choosing rightly to honor the special forces and intelligence effort that got bin Laden in the end. The full difficulty of the task may not be understood by the public for some time. The military and intelligence community are to be commended for their quiet, effective execution. This operation will serve as a warning to other terrorist planners about our capability to track them down, even when they are hidden in specially built compounds near Islamabad, undoubtedly with the full knowledge of senior officials in Pakistan.
I am saddened to see the crowd outside the White House, cheering and chanting “USA! USA!” Nothing has been won with this killing. This is not a victory. It’s not even justice. There can be no “justice” for 9/11; there can only be healing, renewal, and the strategic defeat of the Islamist terrorist idea. The attacks on 9/11 were something human justice can never redress. Symmetrical vindication is impossible. The only useful response is what America did after 9/11: change the conditions Islamist terrorists operated in; reach into their world and disrupt it, flooding it with light and noise until they scattered like cockroaches.
I join President Obama in welcoming the demise of bin Laden. In the sense that it was not unjust to kill him, we may say, as Obama did, that “justice has been done.” But it doesn’t feel American to me to wave flags and cheer over the assassination of a middle-aged terrorist hidden in a compound in northeastern Pakistan. Street demonstrations cheering an assassination don’t belong here. Save the flags for when America has done something noble and great – or at least for when the achievement has strategic meaning.
Bin Laden’s demise comes, fittingly, at a time when the momentum of Islamist radicalism is shifting from nihilistic terrorist acts to the avenue of seeking political power. That doesn’t mean there will be no more efforts at large-scale terrorism. There undoubtedly will be.
But the nexus of Islamism is migrating slowly but inexorably toward politics and centers of national power. Even before he was dead, bin Laden was to a significant extent superannuated. Real opportunities have opened in the last six months for radical Islamists to gain influence in, or take over, seats of government. Islamism was oriented for decades on harassing sitting governments, in both the Middle East and the West. But today, the opportunities for Islamists to gain political power – along with armies and missile arsenals – extend well beyond revolutionary Iran and the Afghanistan of the Taliban era.
Bin Laden was not a leader in this emerging thrust of Islamism. He wasn’t suited to be someone who mattered going forward – and he hasn’t been for several years. We can certainly expect that there will be attempts at terrorist retaliation, or demonstrations of continued vitality, in the days ahead, but the attention of Islamists and Islamism is really focused elsewhere now.
I don’t begrudge anyone, especially those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, their gratification that “we got him.” A little more of the past has been mopped up. I trust the good sense of the American people to put the flags down quickly, and move forward into a future in which we wave them for better reasons.