They dumped his body in the ocean, but I suspect the ghost of Osama bin Laden will hover over Republican super-hawks for some time to come as a stinging rebuke to their incompetence. When they might have captured Osama nine years ago, they let him slip away. They launched two incoherent wars in his name. They used Osama’s phantom existence as a pretext for restarting the cold war with borderless possibilities. This great nation mobilized its awesome military resources to engage in a bellicose version of Where’s Waldo?
Well, finally, it is over. Waldo sleeps with the fishes (literally). The country is at last free of the conceit of endless war inspired by his name. Truly, 9/11 was terrifyingly real. Osama was evil, for sure. His death brings relief, a sense of satisfying vengeance, a job well done. On further reflection, however, I suspect many people will also feel somewhat embarrassed that their reasonable emotions were manipulated by cheap propagandists into something dreadfully exaggerated and irrational. We have a right to resent some of the shameful things done in our name. We have an obligation to make sure they do not continue.
This is another way of saying Americans should take this opportunity to celebrate victory and get out. Politicians and officials naturally insist continued vigilance is required, but I predict they will be unable to sustain the inflated fears of terrorism now that the symbolic demon is dead and gone. Without the resonant mystery about this man, people will begin to see that the dangers of terrorism were never as present or all-encompassing as the war-talkers claimed. Declaring victory is an effective way to demobilize, to announce the born-again cold war over and done.
Barack Obama is the perfectly suited winner for this moment. It is time to address the world as it is, not without potential adversaries but alive with possibilities for peaceful relationships and creative diplomacy that relies more on softer power than continuous war. The president has been playing this card from the start, not without some contradictions, but he now has a new starting point for turning vision into concrete change. He can get out of Afghanistan, for instance, now that Osama is out of the picture.
These events have conferred new authority on the president. He suddenly stands taller as commander-in-chief, looks more competent than his predecessor. If Republicans continue with their mocking ridicule and racially tinted suspicions, they will only sound more childish and unpresidential. Obama, in fact, is relieving the Democrats of the soft-on-defense accusations that that have stalked the party since Vietnam. Peaceful revolutions in the Middle East simultaneously create opportunities no other president has enjoyed in decades. All this, however, creates a vast new political burden for Obama. He has to deliver what he promised.
For links to The Nation’s complete coverage of Osama bin Laden’s death, click here.