May 10th 2011

Repercussions of the Killing of Bin Laden

by James J. Zogby

Dr. James J. Zogby is the President of Arab American Institute
The killing of Osama bin Laden-a man who was responsible for numerous acts of mass murder-should have been the end of a story.

I have no doubt that the essential elements of how he met his death are true: that he was tracked down by intelligence agencies; that with the President's authorization, a meticulously planned operation was designed; and that after being presented with estimates as to the certainty of the target and prospects for success, the President dispatched a team to the site and in the process of carrying out the plan, bin Laden was killed.

That much, I believe, is clear. The rest is murky and potentially problematic.

First and foremost are the questions that have arisen because of the clumsy way the story was told. Confusion or contradictions regarding "mechanical difficulties", "human shields", "firefights", "burial at sea", etc. have provided grist for the media mills here and in the Arab World. These have created distractions that have allowed the story to play out in ways that reflected the predisposition of the storytellers.

For U.S. conservatives, on television and talk radio programs, for example, the initial telling was best. In their fanciful flights, the coward bin Laden, living in a "multi-million dollar mansion", "hid behind a woman", etc. And they gloated and blustered in delight, some even embellishing the story further, to the delight of their listeners.

There were also those whose concern was heightened by the conflicting facts leading them to ask why the terrorist leader was not simply captured and brought to justice to answer for his many crimes against humanity.

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, some, already distrustful of the U.S., either saw the entire episode as fiction or picked out those parts of the story that fit their bias, using them to construct alternative narratives. In some versions, an unarmed bin Laden was willfully executed; while, in others, he and his band were seen as fighting a pitched battle in which they shot down a helicopter and held off their attackers during a prolonged shoot out. And then there are still others, albeit a minority, who do not believe the story at all, dismissing it as a self-serving fabrication.

There were additional complications presented by the way the military disposed of bin Laden's corpse. While attempting to adhere to religious requirements so as not to provoke undo concern, the details and justifications provided only served to raise more questions, generating a debate among some Muslim scholars who took issue with the description of the ritual or the very notion of appropriateness of the "burial at sea".

As a result, instead of burying the story with bin Laden, questions continued to be asked on both sides of the divide with demands for more clarification and even calls for release off photographic evidence of bin Laden's dead body.

None of this, of course, points to any widespread support for bin Laden and his movement, or for the terrorism they utilized that took the lives of thousands of innocents in America, in ten Arab countries, and as many more in Europe, Africa and Asia. Rather what it reveals is the troubling lack of trust that defines perceptions of the U.S. across much of the Arab and Muslim Worlds. And so this clumsy handling of the demise of bin Laden, which was to have provided closure, in the end, only exposed the depth of division and mistrust.

At one point, the President was forced, I believe correctly, to shut the discussion down saying "no more" and insisting that no further explanations or pictures would be forthcoming. I say "correctly" because feeding the questioning media beast with more clarifications would never have sated its hunger, and releasing the pictures would have resolved nothing. Not unlike the "birther" dispute here in the U.S., those inclined toward disbelief would most likely reject the photos anyway (recall how the video of bin Laden boasting about the Twin Towers was dismissed by some as a "Forrest Gump" like concoction). All that release of the photos would accomplish is to provide an iconic image of a bloodied face-this, like the original story itself, would have been interpreted through the biased lens of the interpreter.

A second and deeply troubling aspect of this entire episode has been the much reported impact it will have on the U.S.- Pakistan relationship and on internal Pakistani politics. Questions are being asked about whether Pakistan knew about bin Laden's presence in an obviously conspicuous compound located close to one of their military academies; and if they didn't know, then equally disturbing questions are being asked about the competence of their intelligence capabilities.

It is interesting to note that nearly identical concerns related to these issues are being raised in both the U.S. Congress and the Pakistani Parliament - although for different reasons. Congress wants to know whether or not Pakistan can continue to be trusted as an honest and effective ally deserving of the billions of dollars it receives in U.S. military and economic aid. On the Pakistani side, they want to know whether their military and intelligence services can be trusted to protect the country's sovereignty from being violated either by the presence of bin Laden or from a U.S. assault. With that country reeling from a long war against the Taliban and other terrorists within their borders and deeply resentful of U.S. drone missile attacks and the recent killing of Pakistanis by a U.S. intelligence official-this assault against bin Laden has stirred an already simmering pot, placing the once respected Pakistani military establishment in a bind.

How this all plays out in Pakistan and in the U.S. - Pakistan relationship will be critical for stability in that country and for the cross-border conflict in Afghanistan. Further erosion in trust or a breakdown in ties or a cut in much needed aid to a troubled Pakistani economy would make an already bad situation worse.

For his part, the President has handled the moment well. Instead of indulging in unbecoming displays of victory or "Mission Accomplished" celebrations, he has been tempered and thoughtful. While not providing closure, since nothing can, his quiet and respectful appearance at Ground Zero with families of victims and survivors of the 9/11 terrorist attacks was an appropriate and dignified act of remembrance.

What we are left with are the memories of pain and loss of that fateful day, and the knowledge that in the 10 years that have passed we have compounded that horror with two misguided and unfinished wars - that have taken the lives of so many more, and behaviors, at home and abroad, that have tarnished our image and eroded our values.

Given all this, it might have been too much to hope that the end of bin Laden would have brought at least a degree of finality, closing at least one chapter of this still unfolding tragic tale. Sadly, it might have, had the story not been handled so clumsily, raising more questions than it answered.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jun 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "Xi Jinping’s call for friendship gives us an opportunity to examine Chinese politics on both the domestic and international stage. On the face of it, it suggests the possibility of rapprochement between the rich liberal democracies represented by the G7 and the authoritarian Chinese state. However, despite appearances of a call for a closer relationship, there is more than one way of being friends – and Xi’s idea might be somewhat different to what many in countries attending the G7 might expect."
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "China’s recently published census, showing that its population has almost stopped growing, brought warnings of severe problems for the country. “Such numbers make grim reading for the party,” reported The Economist. This “could have a disastrous impact on the country,” wrote Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, in the Financial Times. But a comment posted on China’s Weibo was more insightful. “The declining fertility rate actually reflects the progress in the thinking of Chinese people – women are no longer a fertility tool.” "
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: " I remember recounting fellow leaders of the story of a Rwanda schoolboy caught up in the genocide of the 1990s and now immortalized in the Kigali Genocide Memorial museum, where, in a section devoted to children, one can find his photograph and a plaque that reads: ----- David, age 11 ...... Ambition: to be a doctor ...... Favorite sport: football ...... Favorite hobby: making people laugh ...... Death: by mutilation ...... Last words: the UN are coming to save us ----- In his idealism and innocence, David believed the international community would save him and his mother. We didn’t. "
Jun 8th 2021
EXTRACT: " While many conservative Republicans opposed Trump and saw that he posed a danger to their party and democracy itself, they were hesitant to buck the mass movement they had created, fearing that it would turn against them. Some of these same conservatives assumed that with Trump's defeat, the horror of January 6th, and the former president's banishment from social media, the time had come to restore sanity to their party. But the GOP leadership’s continued cowering in the face of what they now call "Trump's base" has caused them to circle the wagons and purge their ranks of those who call for sanity. "
May 26th 2021
Editor's Note: This article is about the Federal Reserve, inflation in the 1970's, and possible similarities to today.
May 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "Netanyahu claims to be acting in the name of the Jewish people. He certainly is not. Many Jews around the world, including me, despise Netanyahu’s racist politics. As an American, I am also deeply troubled by the US government’s knee-jerk support of Israel. Fortunately, I am not alone in this view. A growing number of Democratic Congressmen, Jews and non-Jews alike, have called on the United States to stop supporting Israel’s lawlessness. The truth is that the US government’s uncritical support for Israel has come to depend more on evangelical Christians, such as former US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, than on American Jews, who are deeply divided by Netanyahu’s actions. And the evangelicals’ real interest in Zionism is not Jews’ security, but Armageddon, the end of the world, which they believe will come only when all Jews are in Israel."
May 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "This period in US history could go down as the moment when America’s democratic system for electing a president – the most consequential duty of US citizens – was broken, perhaps for good."
May 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "While reading Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) monumental report “A Threshold Crossed,” I felt a range of emotions. It also left me with one big question. I was deeply impressed by the report’s rigorous scholarship. At the same time, it brought to the surface feelings of anger and profound sadness. It’s an extraordinarily complete study detailing not only the many ways Israel has violated a broad range of Palestinian human rights, but the ideology of racial superiority and entitlement that Israel has used to justify its repression." ..... "My advice to both Israel’s defenders and weak-kneed liberals is​, “Read the damn report.” "
May 16th 2021
EXTRACTS: .... "He transformed a transitioning market economy into a stable statist project that rests on an alliance of his inner circle," ..... "He transformed Russia from a respected member of the international community into a rogue state" .... ". He energized NATO by providing it with the adversary it lacked after the end of the cold war," ..... "He befriended hopelessly corrupt, dysfunctional, and unstable dictatorships..." ..... "He forged a quasi-alliance with China, thereby enhancing Russia’s dependence on the one country that might have reason to appropriate those Russian territories inhabited by Chinese."
May 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "On the face of it, the latest escalation of violence is following the template of all inter-ethnic wars. Muslims observing Ramadan shouted nationalist slogans and clashed with Israeli right-wing groups chanting “Death to the Arabs.” The Israelis haughtily marched with their national flag on Jerusalem Day, marking Israel’s capture in 1967 of East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, the site of the biblical Second Temple, and of Al-Aqsa, completed in the year 705. Battles in and around the Al-Aqsa compound erupted, with worshipers inside throwing stones at the Israeli police, who responded by firing rubber-tipped bullets and other projectiles, wounding hundreds."
May 13th 2021
"Regardless of how the current and future violent conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians in Jerusalem will end, there will be no Israeli-Palestinian peace unless East Jerusalem becomes the capital of a Palestinian state while the city remains united."
May 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " Would the United States be prepared to risk a catastrophic war with the People’s Republic of China to protect the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan? "
May 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human history, ancient and contemporary, is replete with instances of genocide – that is, the effort to eradicate a people, erase their history, denigrate their culture, and destroy their physical presence. Many of these atrocities have been recognized by the victims and other nations who support them. But, with the notable exception of the German acknowledgment of the Holocaust, rarely have the perpetrators of these crimes accepted responsibility and offer recompense "
May 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "The best way to defend liberal democracy is to practice it at home and abroad with the “courage and self-confidence” that Kennan touted at the dawn of the Cold War. This is also the best way to ensure the survival of our own conception of human freedom. And survive it will."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Sammy Roth at the LA Times/ Boiling Point Newsletter reports that California’s main power grid was powered for several hours last Saturday by 90% renewables. For just four seconds that day, the grid, which covers 4/5s of the state, reached 94.5% generation by green energy. California is the world’s fifth largest economy. The main grid does not cover Los Angeles County. On the other hand, these figures do not include the electricity generated by the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which is not counted as renewable but which is also very low-carbon."
Apr 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "It is no accident that there has been an economic divergence in Central and Eastern Europe. Those countries that have joined the European Union have improved their economic governance, and GDP has begun to converge with Western Europe. Between 2014 and 2019, Hungary, Poland, and Romania grew at an annual average rate of 3.9%, 4.1%, and 4.7%, respectively. Meanwhile, Belarus and Ukraine experienced minimal growth during this period, and Russia’s economy expanded at an average annual rate of just 0.7%. Though Russia had a higher per capita GDP (in terms of purchasing power parity) than Croatia, Poland, Romania, and Turkey as recently as 2009, all of these countries have since overtaken it. Russians today are shocked to learn that they are worse off than Romanians and Turks. Among EU member states, only Bulgaria is still poorer than Russia. With its close proximity to the EU single market, Russia could have had higher growth if it had pursued sound economic policies. Instead,..... "
Apr 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "As far as anyone can tell, the US military is not on the verge of an internal breakdown, let alone primed to stage a coup d’état. But few predicted anything like the US Capitol riot before protesters equipped with body armor, stun guns, and zip-ties breached the building. Before the US is blindsided again, its leaders must act resolutely to root out extremism in the military."
Apr 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The new report on 2020 by the International Renewable Energy Agency reveals that the world’s renewable energy generation capacity increased by an astonishing 10.3% in 2020 despite the global economic slowdown during the coronavirus pandemic." .... "In 2020, the global net increase in renewables was 261 gigawatts (GW). That is the nameplate capacity of some 300 nuclear power plants! There are actually only 440 nuclear power plants in the whole world, with a generation capacity of 390 gigwatts. So let’s just underline this point. The world put in 2/3s as much renewable energy in one year as is produced by all the existing nuclear plants!"
Apr 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "When we examined the development of nations worldwide since 1820, we found that among rich Western countries like the United States, the Netherlands and France, improvements in income, education, safety and health tracked or even outpaced rising gross domestic product for over a century. But in the 1950s, even as economic growth accelerated after World War II, well-being in these countries lagged.
Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."