Monday, May 2, 2011

The Tragedy of Osama bin Laden

A digital representation of an aged Osama bin ...Image via Wikipedia
I awoke this morning to the news that Osama bin Laden, the figurehead and initial organizer of the al Quaeda movement which has spawned many acts of terror around the globe, had been killed by United States forces including Navy SEALS and CIA operatives. This was no surprise, as eventually Osama was going to be discovered. It was merely a matter of when. Perhaps the reaction in many parts of the United States should not have been a surprise either, but it was still disheartening.

I am not a supporter of al Queada nor a fan of bin Laden. Sadly, the end of his life was to a great extent the result of his own choices. Yet these choices don't exist in a vacuum. They are shaped and limited by a historical and social context. We can always ask, "If such and such a government had made this choice instead in the 1940s..." or "If this hadn't happened in the 1970s....", would the context in which people like bin Laden had made their own choices been different? Would other options have been possible or more favorable? This does not excuse the personal choices people make, but we must neither over- nor underestimate agency. People are not automatons at the mercy of history and socialization, but neither are they uninhibited agents who are completely free of the circumstances of their lives.

In an alternate history not much different than our own, could bin Laden have been in a better position to use his influence to foster peace and global unity? Might he have been more inclined to choose such a path? He, and you and I, however, must make our choices in the world as it is, not in the world as it might have been. More importantly, we also must choose the world we want to see and make our choices to reflect the world as it could be. One tragedy we face is that the collective choices of the past created a world fertile for a terrorist organization like al Quada, just as series of choices in the nineteenth century laid the foundation for violent revolutions and totalitarian regimes in the twentieth. It is a tragedy that the world as it was allowed the person bin Laden became to wield such destructive influence. But what kind of world are we laying the groundwork to build moving forward? This kind of moment in history is ideal for reflecting on this question and then working to create the future we want to see. As the old saying goes, the chickens have (and will) come home to roost.

This brings us to the images of parties and celebrations in the streets over the news of the death of bin Laden. On one level this is hard to criticize, as bin Laden not only bore great responsibility for the horrific events of September 11, 2001, but he was transformed into a symbol of a distorted vision of Islam which has become synonymous with savagery, brutality and fundamentalism to a vast number of people in the Western world. At the same time he became a symbol of defiance to the perceived threat of Western economic, military and cultural imperialism to some in the non-Western world, especially those who saw the root of their problems as the collaboration of their corrupt governments with these Western powers. The emotional release, either as euphoria or anger and despair, associated with his passing is understandable. The relief of letting go of some of that fear and frustration, especially for those living in places such as New York City, is not necessarily unhealthy or unreasonable.

Yet there is a danger here. Consider if somehow General Petraeus, for example, had somehow been ambushed and killed, and those who saw him as part of an evil system killing innocent civilians as what they consider to be martyred members of al Queada were shouting and dancing the streets and waving flags. What might those of us raised in the West think of these images as they were broadcast to our televisions and our computer screens? What ugly stereotypes and visceral prejudices might be stirred at such sights and sounds? How, then, do we think that people in other parts of the world might view our own jubilation? Many revelers might simply answer that they do not care what the rest of the world thinks, and that in and of itself reflects a deeper problem because the world is shrinking and nationalism and is being redefined. We are increasingly confronted with the evidence of our shared humanity and our interdependence on one another. We cannot afford not to care. Not that we ever really could, but the costs of such attitudes are higher than ever before.

There is another danger here: that the expression of relief driving much of the celebration of the news of the death of the man behind al Queada is being mixed with racism, religious intolerance and xenophobia, the worst elements of what is too often expressed with ethnocentric terms such as as (psychological) tribalism. Rather than seeing the occasion as the capstone in a series of events surrounding the pursuit of a terrorist leader (and with that an opportunity to express regret at all of the lives and resources lost because of that individual), it can become an occasion for a triumphalist exaltation of one society and its cultural traditions over another. After the initial giddy euphoria many are expressing at the death of bin Laden, which I cannot personally experience or share, we need to recall that our values, religious and humanist, share a conviction regarding the sanctity of all life. We need to find shared ways to re-imagine our world as a place of dignity and security and joy for all.
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