Osama bin Laden's death removes the single focal point that has dominated American foreign affairs – and much of American politics at home – for a decade. And certainly, the United States and the world can breathe a sigh of relief that a dreaded enemy no longer needs to be countered. But the removal of bin Laden also opens up some space for thinking – not just for perpetual reaction, which has been the singular characteristic of the American version of the "war on terror".
It is time now, and going forward, to think about the impact bin Laden had on us and on our world, especially when it came to thinking about justice.
At the heart of the rhetoric justifying and explaining our policies has been the notion of justice. In the decade since 9/11, the word has been used to mean many things, including revenge, retaliation, punishment and even healing. So it was used by President Bush when he told the nation and the world, time and time again, that our purpose in waging war in Afghanistan and Iraq and Afghanistan was the bring the enemy to justice. And in Sunday night's statement, President Obama labelled the killing of bin Laden as a moment of justice as healing.
What we need to remember, though, is that the effect of bin Laden's reign of terror on the notion of justice was to pervert it. Under the rubric of fighting terror, the United States rolled back its hallowed notions of civil liberties, its embrace of modernity, and even its reliance on its own courts. We delved into medieval-style torture, we reneged on our courts as a viable option for trying terrorists, and we blindly took aim at a religion, rather than its disaffected hijackers.
It is not surprising – but needs to be noted – that bin Laden was killed in a gunfight. The order was to kill not capture, even in a face-to-face encounter, which this apparently was. We thus forfeited the right to parade his excesses to the world at large – including to the thousands of Muslims whose family members have been killed by al-Qaida attacks. We ran, knowingly, from the chance to hold him in custody, and to punish him by due process and make him account to the world for what he has done.
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This, then, was the inevitable ending to the way the United States has chosen to conduct this war. Bin Laden was an enemy so dreaded and so feared that his killing by military execution was the only possible end for a country that had given up so much of itself in his name. This was not a criminal, it was judged, that our courts, even after ten years, could handle. This was not an enemy whose fate the United States wanted to debate with the world and in the world's criminal courts. His killing put an end to innumerable conversations that would, arguably, have continued to confound nations and their citizens. In his death, as in his life, we followed his lead when it came to thinking about justice.
There is no denying that bin Laden's death is the end of the menace of al-Qaida as we know it: that without his leadership, a diffuse network, frayed at the edges by a decade of effective counterterrorism and harried by military interventions, will likely fall further into disarray. But a word of warning may be in order. Many of the pundits and politicians today are warning us not to let our guard down, to beef up security, to remember to be ever-vigilant – even if the immediate menace in our sights has been vanquished.
This is a version of the refrain that has marked the decade since 9/11: in fear, in hatred, in revenge, we need to fortify ourselves by forsaking many of our ideals. With this refrain in mind, we Americans, in the name of bin Laden, have been lured into a compromise with our own principles, whether it's on the matter of torture, of detention or of war without end.
Perhaps, in sending bin Laden's body into the waters of the ocean, we should consider sending all that he represented to us to the bottom of the sea as well. Perhaps we could, in his absence, remember once again who we are, and begin to rebuild our confidence in ourselves – starting with our system of justice.