My son who’s studying abroad this semester was Skyping us.
“So bin Laden’s dead,” he typed.
“Yeah, Mama and I watched Obama’s speech last night.”
“I don’t feel anything.”
“You know, I was just thinking the same thing. Thinking about writing a column about that.”
What do I feel? First of all, a kind of matter-of-fact appreciation of the report that a mass murderer is no more for this world. His death was his hubris and his karma.
But when I see crowds of Americans waving the flag, singing patriotic songs, and chanting “USA! USA!” I feel a little nauseated. How can anyone aware of what the U.S. is doing in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen and Libya feel nationalistic pride at this moment in history?
When I watch NBC’s Brian Williams eagerly prompting CIA director Leon Panneta to affirm that “enhanced interrogation methods” facilitated bin Laden’s killing, implicitly justifying the water-boarding torture chambers of Guantanamo, I feel sickened further.
Intelligence agencies and Interpol warn of a wave of al-Qaeda revenge attacks. Having long suspected that al-Qaeda’s strength is much exaggerated, I’ll be curious to see if such attacks actually occur. If they don’t, or if they’re staged by mere sympathizers and copycat outfits, it will confirm my suspicion.
A greater concern is the response of average people around the world to the Saudi’s death. He commanded various degrees of respect among tens of millions who, whether or not they endorsed his tactics, embraced his stance against Israeli occupation of Palestine, U.S. support for Israel and dictatorial Arab regimes, and the brutal sanctions regime imposed on Iraq throughout the 90s. They’re likely to decry the manner in which he was killed. That won’t necessarily incline them to “terrorism” but will deepen their conviction that the U.S., whatever Obama says, are little concerned about Muslims and their sensibilities.
In Pakistan in particular, where in some regions the name “Osama” has become a very popular name for newborn boys, many are likely to be infuriated. First of all there is the issue of national sovereignty. The incessant drone strikes on the border area, mainly causing civilian casualties, have been repeatedly denounced by Pakistan’s legislature as well as President Zardari. Wikileaks show that the Islamabad regime actually tolerates the strikes while publicly condemning them. But that doesn’t make them any more legal or legitimate; it just gives the Pakistani people more reason to reject a regime complicit in national humiliation.
In this case, U.S. commandos in an operation carefully kept secret from putative (and untrusted) allies raided a compound near the capital of Islamabad. They meted out, cowboy style, frontier justice to U.S. Enemy Number One. Sure, they had “informed” Pakistani authorities that they would strike if they had intelligence about bin Laden’s presence. But Pakistan’s Parliament had never given them carte blanche, and now the Pakistanis quite understandably warn against any repeat of this action. Virtually all experts predict further decline in U.S.-Pakistan relations.
The initial report from White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan stated that bin Laden had been killed in a firefight. But White House spokesman Jay Carney later stated that bin Laden had been unarmed, and that there were not even any bodyguards on hand, merely two al-Qaeda couriers and a son among those killed. Brennan stated that the commandos would have taken bin Laden alive if that were possible. But Panetta explained that the unarmed bin Laden “made some threatening moves” that required shooting him in the head and chest. (Did he reach for a lamp to throw? Did he appear to reach into his tunic for a gun?) Attorney General Eric Holder gives a little different story. Hsays with a straight face that shooting unarmed bin Laden was “an act of national self-defense,” adding: “If he had surrendered, attempted to surrender, I think we should obviously have accepted that, but there was no indication that he wanted to do that and therefore his killing was appropriate.” In other words, he was just passively there, defenseless, and failing to raise his hands in surrender, had to be shot to death—so that the heavily armored commandos could defend themselves from him. How much sense does that make?
It was initially reported that bin Laden’s 29-year-old wife “lunged” at the commandos and so had to be shot to death. (Rather courageous, for an unarmed woman, confronting well-armed commandos!) Brennan alleged that bin Laden used her as a “human shield” (a charge so often directed at Muslims by Israelis and U.S. officials). Carney later corrected this, stating that the wife had not been used as a shield, and that she had merely been shot in the leg as she lunged. No explanation for the earlier lie, which will no doubt endure as part of a popular narrative.
So the current story is that commandos raided an unarmed household, met with no significant resistance, and shot bin Laden to death. This is what we call assassination.
Now, maybe assassination is good sometimes. But this operation plainly violates a host of U.S. and international laws. It reflects the general Israelification of U.S. policy. Present yourself as the victim of the world—never asking why you’re hated or what you’ve done to deserve such loathing—and wrap yourself in self-righteousness. Assert your right to lash out at any foes, regardless of international law. Engage in preemptive strikes. (Never mind that the Reagan administration joined the world in condemning Israel’s bombing of an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 in what Israel called a “preemptive” attack. In 2003, with the neocons in charge of policy, the U.S. itself launched a “preemptive” attack on Iraq, supposedly to prevent it from nuking New York City. ) Send attack squads to foreign countries to assassinate your enemies. Rest assured your people will applaud.
The only complaints I’ve seen about this assassination mission in the U.S. press involve the use of “Geronimo” as code-name for bin Laden, and the disposal of the body. Those seeing the first issue as trivial has no understanding of the heroic role of the Apache leader in the history of this country. They’ve been duped by the simplistic “us vs. them” mentality encouraged by the Bush (and Obama) administration, no doubt thinking, Geronimo was our enemy, Osama was our enemy, why not code-name the Saudi after the Apache? That should disgust thinking people.
Many question or condemn the “sea burial.” Some note that the absence of a body will encourage skeptics to deny the death, while some Muslims suggest that while the normal procedure (burial in the ground within 24 hours of death) can sometimes be adjusted due to circumstances, such circumstances didn’t pertain this time. Bin Laden didn’t die at sea. His corpse was dropped into the Arabian Sea supposedly because no country would agree to accept it within the specified time. More likely the U.S. feared that any burial site would become a site of pilgrimage. Should we not ask why such a man might be revered?
The military says the quick “burial” was in deference to Muslim sensibilities. But since when has the U.S. military deferred to those sensibilities?
The death of bin Laden leaves me cold. Some good may come of it. Already it’s caused many to urge a withdrawal from the hopeless war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Let’s now declare victory and leave, they say, and that’s better than advocating endless bombing and occupation. (It would be better still to admit that the Taliban was never the same thing as al-Qaeda and most Afghans fighting the U.S. and allies are not even aware of the 9-11 attacks. And to acknowledge that the war, which has long since ceased to have anything to do with al-Qaeda, is wrong.)
But the nature of the death—by assassination, illegally, in a foreign country—fills me with disgust. The lies that immediately accompanied it (just as the U.S. UN ambassador was falsely claiming that Gaddafi’s forces in Libya were being rationed Viagra so as to better rape members of the opposition!) repulse me too. “Fierce firefight”! Doesn’t that make the assassins seem heroic? Wife used as “human shield”! Doesn’t that make bin Laden seem all the more evil? (Recall the false stories that accompanied the capture of Panama’s Manuel Noriega, including the cocaine that turned out to be tamale flour; or that surrounded the attack on Iraq in 1991, including the lie that Iraqi forces invading Kuwait had slaughtered prematurely born babies dragged from incubators in the hospital.) It is amazing what people will believe, disgusting to observe how rulers exploit their gullibility.
There is no cause for joy or celebration here, just cause to reflect on a decade of lies and brute force justified on lies. This killing brings no closure to that decade. It rather augurs another of triumphal terrorism of the uniquely U.S. variety.
* * * *
“Tonight,” Obama boasted in his Sunday night speech, “we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history.”
Indeed, “we” were able to become a rich nation on the basis of slave agriculture and territorial expansion at the expense of native peoples and neighboring Mexico. “We” industrialized on the basis of waves of immigrants subject to inhuman factory conditions. “We” became a world power by twice entering world wars, emerging stronger each time due to expanding control of markets and resources. “We” slaughtered millions in the Korean, Vietnamese, and Iraqi wars to maintain and expand empire. “We’ve” bankrolled Israel through repeated wars and invasions of extraordinary cruelty condemned by virtually every other nation on earth. Yes we can!
And we the people of this country can be hated endlessly for what the U.S. government does. Do we want that?
Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades. He can be reached at: email@example.com