Sunday evening, President Barack Obama announced on live television that Osama bin Laden, former leader of al Qaeda, had been killed by a U.S. operation in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Since then, there has been a flurry of reactions, questions and even celebrations about the death of a man who came to be an international symbol of terrorism.
Surely this is a blow to al Qaeda, probably the biggest the U.S. has accomplished, but al Qaeda is a terrorist organization whose members have pledged their lives to upholding extremist ideals. There has been some media speculation about what possible retaliation might come from al Qaeda, but it seems almost ridiculous to assume that bin Laden’s death will dissolve the group completely. To be honest, no one can know what events will unfold.
But something that has been most interesting in the aftermath of bin Laden’s death (and it has only been three days) is the reaction of our generation. On Sunday evening, most news networks rolled footage of 20-somethings dancing and chanting “U.S.A.” on the White House lawn. We could attribute this to ignorance, but we could also attribute it to the fact that our generation has grown up with terrorism. We have grown up with bin Laden’s face being the face of evil.
Who or what will be our target now that our target has died? How is the next generation going to fight terrorism?
In reality, we should ask ourselves what the Obama administration has truly accomplished with this move. By the time bin Laden was killed, he was more of a figurehead than anything else, so it is unlikely that al Qaeda and the ideas it represents will be seriously damaged. After all, fighting a terrorist organization is not like fighting a typical war. It cannot be killed by shooting its leader. At its core, terrorism is a method derived from an ideology which can only be thwarted through delegitimizing that ideology.
So then, what positive things are coming out of bin Laden’s death? It’s great for American morale. Obama’s approval rating went up by nine points the following day alone. For our president, this has been his chance to prove to his critics that he is not, in fact, a “wishy-washy liberal.” Combine this move of killing bin Laden with Obama’s definite “f-ck you, right-wingers” speech at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner the night before, and maybe it will become clear that this was more of an attempt to save face in a decade-long struggle against an enemy that refuses to die, and in which very few concrete results have been seen.
Above all, the impact on U.S. security is uncertain. Already, Taliban leaders are calling for retaliation against the U.S., and Obama has decided not to release photos of the corpse for fear of inciting reactionary measures against U.S. troops in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is worth asking how much safer killing bin Laden has made the U.S., but it is also irrational to assume that the U.S. would discover the location of a man it has hunted for ten years and not send in a Special Ops team.