Saturday, 7 May 2011

Joy to the world, Bin Laden's dead

It’s weeks like this that make me wish I did more than one blog a week. Fortunately most weeks I’m thankful that I only do one a week because I have trouble enough filling one blog post, let along two. The reason I say this is that there are two news stories I think ought to be covered this week, the first is the resounding ‘No’ the British people gave to the referendum on AV this week. Those with a decent memory will remember my series of posts about the General Election and how utterly insane our electoral system is. Given that I’ve not been in the country as this campaign has been going on, I haven’t been subject to the incredible ignorance and cynicism spewed forth from the ‘no’ campaign, and to a lesser extend the ‘yes’ campaign as well, had I been, this blog would probably be looking rather different. As it is my distance from the events has meant that I will only note in passing my disapproval and disappointment with this outcome.

The second piece of news that I would like to cover is the news that Osama Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan early this week. A team of US Navy Seals conducted a raid on a compound in Abbottabad in North-West Pakistan early on Monday morning, killing Bin Laden. Almost ten years after 9/11, the leader of Al-Qaeda and the mastermind behind the attack has finally been killed. I want to qualify what I’m about to say by saying that the world is a better place with the death of Bin Laden. His death, in itself, is a good thing. However the manor in which he was killed and the reaction to it by many people in the USA raises some interesting questions.

There is no doubt that Bin Laden was an evil man guilty of tremendous atrocities. His death is a good thing, but it might not be justified in the context in which it happened. In an ideal world, Bin Laden would face trial for his actions and be sentenced accordingly. He should have faced proper justice from an internationally recognised court. We may never know exactly what happened in that compound, and we should certainly not blame the Navy Seals for shooting Bin Laden, but we have to question the intend behind the raid. Was the intention to kill Bin Laden, or to capture him? If it is the latter, then we must ask why he was killed, given that the details given thus far seem to suggest that shooting Bin Laden dead was not proportional to the direct threat he presented. If the intention was to kill Bin Laden, then whoever gave that order should be held accountable.

The basic principle of justice on which any civilised, democratic state is built, states that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. ‘Proven’ means in a court of law, in this case, when dealing with war crimes on an international scale, an international court. In order for someone to be proven guilty, he must face a trial and be given the opportunity to defend himself. If Bin Laden was ordered dead, then he was not given the opportunity to face trial. Of course, there is no doubt that Bin Laden was guilty, but that does not change the fact that he should have faced trial.

The main issue with this is that it sets a very dangerous president. A government cannot simply murder someone without trail any more than a civilian can simply cold-bloodedly murder a wanted criminal. The US is fighting a war against terrorist who use violence in order to force people into doing what they want. Their main weapons are fear and violence. In order to fight this war, the civilised world has to adhere to its principles and offer a clear alternative to violence and terror. The way to do that is by acting on principles of justice and democracy, by bringing people to trial, not simply killing them.

Now, of course, the circumstances of Bin Laden’s death are somewhat cloudy and will always remain so. There is no way to be certain that his death was the intention. However, I would like to see US officials show some remorse that Bin Laden was not brought to trial. Instead, the reaction to Bin Laden’s death has largely been celebratory, with a healthy dose of self-congratulation.

I can understand that people are happy that Bin Laden is dead, as I said earlier; I’m not exactly upset, but the thing that I find difficult to understand is the sheer force of the joy shown by many. The Whitehouse has been right to try to limit the celebration and Obama has been very gracious in his reaction, but much of the rest of the country has, in many ways, acted in a way that is not entirely appropriate.

People were literally dancing in the street when the news was announced. To me, that sort of outlandish celebration does not seem appropriate. What I think it shows more than anything is the depth of the wounds inflicted on America as a country by 9/11. As someone who does not live in North America, I find the fact that 9/11 is still very raw to many Americans very interesting. As far as I’m concerned it was a great tragedy, but I now see it more in terms of the effect it has had on international politics and airport security. 9/11 is a turning point, one of those cataclysmic events in history that set wholesale changes in motion, equivalent to the French Revolution, or the Nazi invasion of Poland. Obviously, I am living through these changes and observing them, rather than just learning about them in retrospect, but even so, it is very similar. In the months and even years after 9/11 it was still raw and shocking, I was a little too young to have really appreciated it, but even so, I was aware of how cataclysmic it was. Now, however, almost ten years on, I see it as part of the past, something that doesn’t really affect me directly.

What has become clear in the last few days is that ten years has done little to dampen the impact of 9/11 for Americans. It is clearly something that is very much at the forefront of the American consciousness. It still hurts, badly. It makes sense. Not only did thousands die, but it was the first time American civilians had been threatened by someone from outside the USA in a very long time. Not even during the Cold War, when large scale nuclear conflict was a serious possibility, did anyone actually attack the USA on their own soil. Americans are still smarting from the attack, they are still reeling and they still feel vulnerable because of it. Even ten years on, that is still true.

It is not exactly surprising, then, that the death of the man ultimately responsible for the attack has been so well received. The incredible outpouring of emotion is understandable, if a little alien to those observing from the outside. I hope that the death of Bin Laden will allow the USA to start moving on from 9/11 and that it can pass into history for them, as it has for the rest of the world. Of course, it will always be remembered and should always be remembered, but I hope that it will have less of a presence on the American consciousness in the future.

However, in reality, things are unlikely to change too much. While Bin Laden was the official head of Al-Qaeda, he has, for a long time, been just a figurehead. Other men will rise to take his place and their cause will continue to be fought for. Killing Bin Laden is not like beheading a snake. It is a victory which will boost morale, but it will not make it any easier for the west to win the War on Terror. Some commentators and politicians are calling this the beginning of the end, but the grim reality is that there is a long way to go in the current war.

Terrorism continues to be a threat and that threat cannot be countered simply through war. If anything this war has done much to alienate people who would otherwise not turn to extremism. If we are to put an end to the threat to the western world from extremist Muslims, we need to work on getting the moderate Muslims on our side, rather than alienating them by waging war in their country. But that is a whole other topic for a different blog post. In the meantime, we should be glad that Bin Laden is dead, but be sorry he was never brought to trial.

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