With presumed apologies to Craig Ferguson, President Obama said today “I think we can all agree this is a good day for America”. I agree that bin Laden’s demise is a net positive for the country. But there’s a lot that goes into figuring out the net.
First there is the obvious “we got ’em” mentality. I’m not above feeling some sense of jubilation for being able to go all “24” on the terrorists – even if it did take us nearly 9 and a half years. Constructing a mock compound so the SEALs could practice taking bin Laden out is bad-ass and I’m a proud American that we have people that can do this and did do this.
Then there is the justice factor. As commentator Jon Keller succinctly described, bin Laden had become a genocidal loon and there was no question of his guilt since he had publicly claimed responsibility for mass murder. Therefore, his death is all the justice anyone could hope to get from him and avoiding a trial and the nonsense that would go with it is the best way to minimize his martyrdom.
But there are some mitigating factors too. I wonder if taking him alive, but secretly, would have allowed us any opportunity to glean any more about what made him tick or would have helped dismantle al Qaeda. Perhaps not since bin Laden would have been unlikely to cooperate knowing that his death was imminent and we probably wouldn’t have gotten much truth out of him even if Bush-era “enhanced interrogation techniques” were employed. I do hope that the US forces got all kinds of good stuff from bin Laden’s compound and then thoroughly torched it so there is no trace of what we did or did not get.
I suppose the biggest question is what the world will think of us now. Are we thugs merely exacting our revenge or did we successfully neutralize an active threat to our nation’s safety? I happen to think the latter, but one could make a valid point that his recent actions had very little to do with active threats to our country. By all accounts, he was really more a figurehead than he was an active participant in current threats. I suspect most of the world that doesn’t have much of a stake in the matter (e.g. Europe, Russia, China, etc.) probably just see it as neutralizing a threat.
But how do we score from a PR perspective? I think this is probably the biggest issue all around. Bigger than any threat he currently posed and bigger than any sense of justice or revenge. On the plus side, we do send a message that we can find our enemies, even in places like Pakistan, and that anyone who becomes an enemy of our country will never be safe anywhere. That is a good disincentive for potential al Qaeda recruits. But those same recruits no longer need to imagine a marginalized bin Laden in a cave and can instead imagine bin Laden to have been greater than he was. Of course he will be considered a martyr, regardless of whether the specific circumstances surrounding his death are inline with the rules of martyrdom. But perhaps now, those pictures of bin Laden that are inevitably hanging in the rooms of potential terrorists now have a more Christ-like sense to them than they did before. bin Laden wasn’t just the guy who previously did some jihad stuff – he died at the hands of the infidel because of his heroic deeds. That’s a pretty easy thing to believe for somebody who is already mentally susceptible to becoming a terrorist. So by this measure, have we given the al Qaeda cause more ammunition? (sorry, no pun intended)
The manner of his death is a potential point of contention too. But once you determine that bin Laden is going to be captured and that he will eventually die, a quick burial at sea seems like the best move. No place for him to be mourned, no drawn out questions of location of the body, and yet the quick action dictated by Islam is honored. PR-wise, it may not be perfect, but I think it is the least of all evils.
Then there is the question of potential payback. I’m actually not worried about this issue so much. I don’t imagine that the al Qaeda powers-that-be are sitting around in a hookah bar somewhere thinking “some day we’ll get around to more Death To America but right now, I’m really enjoying just chilling with the new Britney Spears” and then they find out that bin Laden is dead and suddenly perk up going “well, that’s it, now I’m mad; back to the lair to plan more evil”. I do imagine that the terrorists who hate us and are already trying to plan an attack are going to continue that planning that attack. As I wrote in the previous paragraph, they may have a few new recruits or better recruit retention, but I don’t feel like this one American success will suddenly put us more at risk. I also don’t think it will mitigate much risk because I don’t think bin Laden was that active in the planning of anything right now anyway.
So payback is a non-issue and we’re definitely better off with bin Laden sleeping with the fishes. But the PR thing is the big question. There are pros and cons but I think we come down on the net positive side here with the US looking better for being able to (eventually) defeat an enemy than the knocks we’ll take by those that disagree with the outcome and the hastening of the martyrdom for which bin Laden was destined already.