What Osama Bin Laden Teaches Us

Hamid Mir interviewing Osama bin Laden for Dai...

Osama bin Laden in 1997. Image via Wikipedia

For once, my students united behind a common enemy. It was just too bad that it was an enemy that was already dead.

With a student body that already has violent tendencies, Monday morning brought the murderous rage of my class into full froth. Even if I could start spouting about Verdun, the Lusitania or the killing fields in the Somme, it wouldn’t make a dent in kids that had nothing but Osama bin Laden on their mind.

World War I would have to wait as class after class wanted to simply share their thoughts—or dispense their dubious knowledge—about the action that killed the elusive Al-Qaeda founder. Many had doubts as to his killing. Some were spreading neighborhood gossip that it was all an act. Others were quick to continue the path of destruction to Pakistan: after all, he was under their very noses.

Still others felt it was all just a distraction from their state tests in reading this week. It took some convincing to assure them that President Obama did want them to graduate and would not consciously disrupt their studies (at least I think so).

Yet now that we’re a few days removed from bin Laden’s demise, the rage and celebration can finally settle down to the more unpleasant task of figuring out what this all means.

In analyzing the situation, and the better answers of my students (which weren’t that many) I found some useful lessons from the death of the world’s most notorious terrorist:

Everyone eventually gets what they deserve.

It’s pretty cut and dry: the bombing of innocents in New York, the Pentagon, embassies and installations abroad. The inspiration of weak-minded ideologues to do likewise. The determination to bring down our way of life at any cost—while offering a rather crappy alternative. This balloonhead was just begging for an ass-whupping, even if it was a decade too late. Let’s just hope those 72 virgins have faces like rabid camels and raging cases of the clap (although Osama may not mind the camel-faces).

Plan twice, Cut once.

You really have to hand it to Obama here. He could’ve just sent some drones in August and smashed the place to bits. Yet he knew the world wouldn’t be convinced with a crater: he needed to produce a furry, smelly body. The operation was meticulously planned and rehearsed, with the President on hand to observe the entire process. The whole business was quick, even with a snafu with a downed chopper, with no US casualties—a feat so precise it would’ve caused a NASA mission controller to tear open his pocket protector in frustration.

Never let them see you coming.

Obama’s code of silence on this would’ve made Lucky Luciano grin. The whole operation only worked if everyone kept their mouth shut: especially in two places that always seem to blab—the CIA and the Pentagon. Few people were in the loop, and even less countries knew until the very last minute. Furthermore, Obama finally caught on to the shady dealings of a certain so-called ally, which leads to:

Don’t try to be all things to all people.

The one big loser in all this is the government of Pakistan, which wound up with serious egg on its face as Bin Laden was found within an hour’s drive of the capital. Pakistan is like the new kid in school who tries to be everyone’s friend on the first day, but usually ends up as the smelly kid on the bus who farts and blames someone else.

For twenty years now, Pakistan has cozied up to whoever was in their best interest at that particular moment, be it a Taliban who terrorized its people using Pakistani weapons and intelligence, or China in finding a new ally in the next war over Kashmir, or the United States in offering support for the Afghan conflict while whistling away the home-grown Islamic extremism and terrorist breeding happening at their doorstep.

In the end, Pakistan is left with no real friends: just a neighbor who wants to take over (Afghanistan), two bully-boys who use it in their petty schoolyard fights with other countries (China, Russia), and a snarling neighbor who just wants to obliterate Pakistan off the map (India, be it with nukes or cricket bats). Even the United States, who will tough it out with anyone no matter how useless, is re-assessing its situation. It might be better for Obama to leave Pakistan to the angry Pashtuns, ravenous Asiatic hordes and software-engineering batsmen. Then we can actually make sense of a massive clusterfuck of a region.

Just because you cut out the cancer does not mean you’re cured.

Remember guys like Black September, the Al-Aqsa Brigades, even Hezbollah and Hamas? They’ve been at the Islamic terrorism racket for a heck of a lot longer than Al-Qaeda. Even with a demoralized, rudderless Al-Qaeda, radical Islam will not go away. The terror it often breeds, likewise, will not go away. Furthermore, expect attacks from those seeking revenge for bin Laden’s death—although hopefully without his generous credit line.

By the way, you don’t have to be a radical Muslim or even a plain old everyday Muslim to engage in terror: just ask the Khmer Rouge, the Red Brigades, the Baader-Meinhof group, the IRA, the UVF, the Ku Klux Klan and various guerrilla groups around the world that on a daily basis have engaged (and continue to engage, in some respects) in acts so brutal it would make the Ayatollah soil his robes—which could be an improvement.

Make sure you’re covered on the back end.

Something very important happened while we spent billions chasing bin Laden: China became a superpower. It already produced most of our consumer goods, bought a huge hunk of our debt and is even attempting to phase out the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency. Other countries, like Russia, Brazil and India, look to create a new bloc with this newly aggressive dragon.

Many Americans see no harm in this. I am not one of them.

US businesses love China, because it’s a source of cheap labor and high profits. European businesses love China as a counterbalance to the United States. Same with Russia, India and the like.

However, to truly get a sense of what it will be like under a Chinese superpower, just ask Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Indonesia: places that know all too well the ugly face of Chinese power.

Say what you will about American hegemony, it is comparatively soft compared to what potentially awaits those countries in Asia that fall under China’s orbit. The United States conquered the world with cheap cigarettes, bad movies and hydrogenated fast food.

Yet those simple pleasures were also balanced by the power of ideas, of beliefs and ethics that shape what it is to be American—even if we rarely practice what we preach. See how long conversations about democracy, human rights, the rule of law, individual opportunity and political discourse last in a Chinese satellite state that values profit and forced consensus over anything else.

What makes China terrifying is not its ideology, but its lack of ideology.

In the push to progress China to superpower status, the Chinese government has embraced capitalism better than us capitalists ever have. They will do business with anyone, no matter how loathsome, as long as they’re in the black. It’s an avarice that would make even J. P. Morgan cringe. When a money relationship is not backed by ideas or ethics, friends can become enemies in the blink of an eye.

In reconnoitering our military positions overseas, the United States should look at China for what it is: a rival that must be dealt with, not an idol that should be fawned over.

The death of bin Laden has left more questions than answers. Yet the United States has a unique opportunity to reshape itself into the superpower we all hoped it should be.

Our financial house must be put in order, and significant cuts should be shared equally, not just in the 20% of the budget deemed politically expedient.

Our commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan should be re-evaluated and, when needed, troops should be re-deployed to where they can do the most good.

Most importantly, we must realize the world that arose while the War on Terror waged. The real enemy of the United States is not in Tora Bora, nor in some madrassa in Kandahar or a mosque in Tehran. It is an ascendant rival that for all its perceived economic benefits stands in direct opposition to everything we stand for.

The United States cannot be sucked into another game as an ordinary superpower. We have to stand for something—or possibly lose everything.

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