It’s too soon to tell how much Osama bin Laden’s death will alter the war on terror, and how much it will matter overall. Certainly more than a little, but maybe less than a lot. We’ve avenged ourselves as a nation, and proved that the reach of American justice is long, and its administration summary when needed, regardless of our respect for human rights in other contexts. But how much else has changed?
I, for one, expect a great deal. Al Qaeda remains; that much is certainly true. And America will surely face terrorism in the future (though we can hope every day against that possibility). Still, with bin Laden’s death, America has bucked the trend, and proved it is the rare, even singular empire whose reach cannot be avoided. As a matter of deterrent, American pride, and human history, this is a great thing… and not one that our enemies will forget anytime soon.
His death also calls into question a lot of what we’ve done in the name of catching him… and validates some others. I stand by my defense of assassination, as a necessary incident of hegemony that need not be incompatible with an otherwise strong-but-moral, and ultimately liberal, view of power. But I see no further role for torture in our counterterror regime.
Nor have I ever. But we’ve only ever justified torture to (1) capture Osama bin Laden, or (2) avert the ticking time bomb scenario. Regardless of whether torture helped track down bin Laden — and I don’t believe it did, regardless of Rumsfeld’s belated correction — there are no more Osama bin Ladens to be neutralized, and the ticking time bomb scenario is little more than a fancy way of assuming one’s conclusion. (The scenario requires us to assume that torture would net necessary intelligence.)
Similarly, we must — and should now be able to — stop using 9/11 and Ground Zero as swords to strike out against our countrymen, and specifically, our Muslim countrymen. Bin Laden’s death will never erase his crimes, nor the damage he did to American families. But his passing puts an endcap on the experience, and somehow makes the event feel less raw. I can’t put my finger on it, but it’s hard, for example, to imagine the “Ground Zero Mosque” being quite so controversial now. There’s catharsis in overcoming even just the human representation of that tragic day.
Maybe that’s just hope. But torture, xenophobia, all those products of misdirected fear — these are all parts of ourselves we should put to rest, again, until the next time we’re tempted to decide it’s expedient to forget our principles. Because there will be a next time. And we can only hope we’re better by then. We — unlike our great enemy — endure. It’s now for us to decide what to make of that fact. Our entitlement to this victory, as to all others to which we find ourselves heir, is something we must demonstrate every day. We can start by trying to return to who we once were.