The War on Terror’s Crossroads
The killing of Osama bin Laden is a real crossroads about which I am currently neither optimistic nor pessimistic (ie, I think there’s an equal chance of going either direction). Many, perhaps most, Americans have viewed the GWOT as fundamentally a war against al Qaeda rather than as a war on terrorism more generally. Andrew Sullivan eloquently sums up this attitude when he writes in explaining his thoughts on the death of Osama bin Laden:
I think especially of all those young Americans who, on September 12 2001, woke up and decided to serve their country in her hour of need. I think of all those who signed up for war because of 9/11. And let’s face it. They did not sign up because they wanted to re-shape the Middle East, or bring democracy to Iraq, or to bribe Hamid Karzai.
They signed up to find, capture, or kill Osama bin Laden.
They signed up to attack everything he represents.
These young men and women, their families, and their friends who supported them clearly took the notion that we were/are at war against al Qaeda very seriously. As importantly, many of the rest of us supported them and encouraged them, while countless others understood and agreed with the sentiments that drove these young men and women to what they believed to be the service of their country
This is in stark contrast to the way in which the average American views the War on Drugs in much more figurative terms – people don’t sign up for the military to fight the War on Drugs (obviously, the government views it much more literally, but the average American does not understand this).
There are certain implications to the public literally viewing something as a “war,” not least of which is that: 1. Wars require sacrifices; and 2. Wars end. Everyone has always understood that the GWOT was not going to end with a peace treaty of some sort, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t think there was a defined end goal of the war. For most, that defined end goal was nothing less than the complete destruction of al Qaeda. For many, the death or capture of bin Laden was viewed as the ultimate indicator as to whether that goal had been achieved. For many, bin Laden simply was the enemy, and the enemy simply was bin Laden.
This, I think, is why so many celebrated on Sunday night, whilst on Sunday and Monday the friends and relatives of those we have lost in this war chose to remember their loved ones and give thanks, even as they sometimes joined the celebrants. The unnatural demise of bin Laden represents, for many, nothing less than the end of the war that began nearly 10 years ago.
People did not cheer in this manner when Saddam Hussein was captured, much less when he was executed. Nor did anyone cheer in this manner when it was initially reported that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the so-called “mastermind” of 9/11, had been killed on September 11, 2002.* Nor when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq and a particularly barbaric terrorist responsible for numerous highly-publicized beheadings of Americans, was killed. Perhaps of particular importance, I do not recall celebrations of this nature when Pablo Escobar, the very face of the War on Drugs, was killed. The outbursts in the wake of bin Laden’s death thus have a purpose that goes far beyond merely celebrating the death of a wicked man responsible for the deaths of thousands of Americans, and, as importantly, thousands of others around the world. They are instead a celebration of the end of a war.
Perhaps this war never should have been fought as a war – few of the other countries victimized by al Qaeda treated its actions as significantly more than a law enforcement issue. But treat it as a war we did, and not for the first time did we fight as a war that which previous nations treated as something less.
To be sure, victory in this war was always a virtual guaranty, so long as we were prepared to allow it to continue – bin Laden and al Qaeda could never have hoped to represent an existential threat to the United States, even though it sure seemed that way in the aftermath of that terrible day. The question was always more one of when victory would come, how much patience we would have in waiting for that day to come, and how much of our freedom we would be willing to part with to attain that day.
But victory, in the eyes of so many of those Americans who supported fighting the War on Terror as a real war rather than an amorphous and fake “War,” has now been achieved. Many of the rest of us have felt for some time that we should not approach the issue of terrorism as either a real war or as a fake “War,” but should instead recognize that every infringement of civil liberties is a victory for the tactics of the terrorist.
And herein lies the crossroads: now that the literal war is at an end, will we, as a people, insist that our government now formally acknowledge that the war we signed up for was a real war against a specific enemy, that this war is won, and it is time to return to something approaching** the pre-9/11 norm? Or will we simply turn our attention away, allowing the government to treat this as a figurative “War” without an end, just with less publicity.
This, my friends, is up to us. But if the answer to the first question is to be “yes,” and the second “no,” then it must begin with this much: we must demand that the troops come home. Now.
*Obviously, the reports that he had been killed turned out to be false, and he was captured several months later in March 2003, after which he was tortured. Many months after being tortured, under standard interrogation procedures, he provided the nom de guerre (but not the real name) of one of bin Laden’s couriers.
**Approaching being the operative word here. Not even in my wildest fantasies do I think the executive branch will give up all the powers it has obtained this last decade, nor that all the civil liberties infringements will be rolled back to where they had been. American governments always gain powers during wars and have never given them all back at the end.