The death of Osama bin Laden, a man who fought his enemies with extreme violence that frequently resulted in the deaths of innocent people, is without doubt a benefit to the world. That there is one less influential individual who believes that political conflict is best resolved by killing and destruction is a small but potentially significant step towards a more peaceful international system. The great pity then, is that his passing and the manner of his death has not yet resulted in any significant public reflection on the really important questions raised by this event, or the broader context and history within which this small drama unfolded, or the countless nameless victims of our ‘justice’. After all, bin Laden’s killing was just one among many thousands that have taken place in a massive ‘war against terrorism’ that has spanned the globe and devastated entire regions.
The first key question to be addressed is, what is the true cost of the instant ‘justice’ delivered to bin Laden, and was it really worth it? Apart from the effort and treasure expended in the operation itself, the cost of bin Laden’s justice must also include the hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and elsewhere who died as a direct result of counter-terrorism operations, the millions of families displaced by years of war and insurgency, the countless cities and livelihoods destroyed in aerial bombing, the tens of thousands of suspected insurgents and terrorists captured and held for years without trial, the hundreds of people rendered, tortured and imprisoned indefinitely in places like Guantanamo because it was believed they had information on bin Laden’s activities, the widespread erosion of human rights in a deluge of counter-terrorism laws and measures, and the victimization of entire communities thought to hold sympathies for bin Laden and his ideology. It also includes the tens of thousands of coalition soldiers and military contractors killed or maimed in Iraq and Afghanistan and the more than two trillion dollars spent on military operations. They finally ‘got him’, but can we even begin to count the real cost of it?
And what about the potential future costs? The killing of bin Laden and the disappearing of his body at sea could lead to reprisal attacks on the US and its allies and an intensifying cycle of violence for years or even decades to come. It could lead to the spread of conspiracy theories which strengthen rather than weaken his mythical status, thus providing new waves of recruits for terrorist groups. It could stimulate ever greater resentment towards what is viewed as a triumphalist, interfering and vindictive West. And it could lead to the erosion of international law and stability when other states decide to mount military operations on foreign soil to kill their opponents too. Are these future costs worth the momentary satisfaction of knowing that the mastermind of 9/11 is now dead? Will the victims of future retaliatory terrorist attacks and the families of slain service personnel be willing to accept it as a fair price for bin Laden’s death? And, perhaps more importantly, could these costs have been avoided altogether? It’s a little known story that has not been fully explained, but the Taliban offered up bin Laden in 2001; they were rebuffed in favour of military strikes and an invasion in which we are embroiled to this day.
The killing of bin Laden raises a second important question, namely, is killing terrorists the best way to deal with the problem of political violence? In reality, the killing of bin Laden is only one in an endless series of terrorist suspect killings in drone attacks, assassinations, disappearances and murders in prison that goes back to 2001 – and in the case of Israel, to the 1950s. Historical experience in places like Israel, Chechnya, Northern Ireland and elsewhere, and decades of research by scholars, shows clearly that killing terrorists does not reduce or resolve the threat of terrorism, and may in fact lead to increased support for violent groups. Certainly, the war to bring bin Laden to justice has done little to address the grievances and conditions that bred his violent campaign in the first place; more likely, it has added to the resentments and injustices which motivate violent resistance. At the least, nothing in the last ten years of war on terror has contributed to eroding the likelihood of other bin Laden’s arising to continue his battle. This could have been an important opportunity to reflect on the effectiveness of our broader counter-terrorism strategy, to evaluate how effective it really is, and to explore whether alternative approaches might in fact yield better results.
Finally, the killing of bin Laden, and the obvious delight and celebrations it provoked, should make us question what kind of society we really are that we openly rejoice in killing and violence – that we consider an eye for an eye, a life for a life, blood for blood, as ‘justice’? What kind of people are we that we can exult without a thought for the hundreds of thousands of victims of our ‘justice’? And what kind of a society are we that we shrug off and excuse the fact that a man was officially killed without trial and his body thrown into the sea, that international law was flouted, that we have denied the victims of 9/11 the opportunity to confront their attacker in a court of law, and that we have made an exception to our deepest values and rules? In this killing, we have admitted, and even celebrated, that some lives are less human than others; that the law does not apply equally to all; that human rights are not innate but can be arbitrarily withdrawn. This is to our shame because we have willingly joined the terrorists in the cesspit of immorality and decided that if they won’t abide by any rules, then neither will we. We have become the monster we fight, and in the process, we have built a world in which terror and ‘justice’ appear to be indistinguishable.