Almost 10 years after emerging as the nation’s top enemy, U.S. forces have killed Osama bin Laden. Though death is not something to be celebrated, his death is good news. His death, as reported by President Barack Obama, is not so much a cause for celebration, but a testament to the determination of America — and especially its armed forces and intelligence personnel — to pursue and punish those who kill as a means to settle ideological differences.
To what degree this weakens the al-Qaida network remains to be seen, but since bin Laden was a charismatic figure in a movement focused on killing Americans and other Westerners, his death must be declared a victory.
But unlike with the death of Adolf Hitler which ended the war in Europe, bin Laden’s death will not immediately end the conflict between Islamic extremists and the West. In the short term, his killing may spur attacks, at home or abroad, as Sen. Susan Collins, a member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said Monday.
Americans must understand the movement if we are to counter it effectively. This has been critical since that September day in 2001 when we were shaken awake to learn people would fly airplanes into buildings to further a cause.
The movement is based in a radical interpretation of Islam. At best, it seeks to purge Western influence from the Middle East. At worst, it seeks to punish the U.S. and other Western nations for their occupation of and control over Arab nations, dating back to the post-World War I years. Adherents see themselves as holy warriors, and when any such group believes God is on its side, logic and humanity are casualties.
The case of bin Laden is especially instructive in understanding the conflict. He hails from a wealthy Saudi family and became politicized in school. He fought Soviet aggressors in Afghanistan in the 1980s, receiving training and support from the U.S. When the Soviets retreated, U.S. support disappeared, leaving the country impoverished and chaotic. A strict religious government — the Taliban — emerged to ensure order.
The experience left bin Laden disillusioned about U.S. motives in its dealings with the Middle East.
As President Obama, and George W. Bush before him, are careful to articulate, America is not at war with Islam. President Obama acknowledged the tension between the West and Muslim nations in his June 2009 speech in Cairo. Change “brought by modernity and globalization led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam. Violent extremists have exploited these tensions in a small but potent minority of Muslims.”
In the speech the president also asserted: “Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire.”
And most importantly, he ended the speech pointing to a brighter economic future for the Arab world, one in which the U.S. would play the part of honest broker.
That the U.S. killed bin Laden is appropriate, letting the world know this nation will not ignore or cower before those who wish us harm. But if bin Laden’s death is to have lasting significance, let it be for marking the time at which the Islamic world stops misunderstanding Western motives. Let it be for marking the time at which Americans stopped associating all Muslims with his violent political agenda.