Culturally Clueless and Politically Tonedeaf, U.S. Gave Bin Laden the Martyrdom He Craved
NEW YORK--The assassination of Osama bin Laden was masterfully orchestrated to appeal to American media consumers. But it will play poorly overseas.
President Obama's Sunday evening announcement, timed to fill Monday's papers with a sickening orgy of gleeful triumph but little information, prompted bipartisan high-fives and hoots all around. "U-S-A! U-S-A!" chanted a mob of drunken oafs in front of the White House. Blending the low satire of two Bush-era classic send-ups of a nation allergic to self-reflection, "Team America: World Police" and "Idiocracy," they set the tone for a week or a month or whatever of troop-praising, God-blessing-America, frat-boy self-backslapping. "So that's what success looks like," wrote New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley in the paper's special ten-page "The Death of Bin Laden" pull-out section.
Success for Obama, certainly. He'll see a much-needed bump in the polls. But it won't last. Eventually the unemployed will wonder why the president devotes so many resources to killing one man but so little to them.
On the geopolitical front, the CIA's ballyhooed Bin Laden takedown operation couldn't possibly have been handled any worse. The War on Terror, if it ever existed, is a war for the hearts and minds of hundreds of millions of Muslims.
It's about them. Not us.
"Bin Laden wanted to die as a martyr. In this sense, his wish was obliged," notes Stephen Diamond in Psychology Today.
Nothing was more important to Osama than to be seen as a brave soldier in an epic clash of civilizations. Claims that he hardly saw combat during the anti-Soviet resistance of the 1980s hurt him. The soft son of a Saudi billionaire and a former mother's boy, Osama wanted to prove himself.
This past weekend, thanks to Navy SEALs, he did. He went out in a blaze of glory, like Scarface. His status as a martyr, as a legend of jihad, is assured.
Yet another screw-up for the U.S., which fell into Bin Laden's trap after 9/11. To Al Qaeda and other Islamist groups, the United States and the West is enemy #2. Their biggest foe is pro-American Muslim dictators and autocrats, and the apathy and indifference among Muslims that allows them to remain in power.
As with most actions carried out by small terrorist groups against enemies with superior manpower and weaponry, the operations attributed to Bin Laden--the bombings of the U.S. embassies in east Africa in 1998 and the U.S.S. Cole in 2000, and 9/11--were intended to provoke the U.S. into overreacting, thus exposing it as the monster he said it was. The invasions of two Muslim countries, Guantánamo, torture, Abu Ghraib, the secret prisons and disappearances and all the rest neatly fit into Osama Bin Laden's narrative, proving his point more succinctly than a zillion fatwas faxed into Al Jazeera.
Everything about Bin Laden's killing squares with the jihadi narrative.
The operation violated the sovereignty of a Muslim country, a constant complaint of radical jihadis. Armed commandos lawlessly invaded Pakistan. Infidel soldiers shot up a house and crashed a helicopter down the street from a military academy. Pakistanis see American drone planes buzzing around overhead, invading their airspace without the thinnest veneer of legality; American missiles blow up houses indiscriminately. Taking out Bin Laden without asking Pakistan's government for permission is an act of war to which the country's poverty permits no response. It's yet another humiliation, another triumph of might over right.
Much will be made of the disrespectful treatment of Bin Laden's body.
In an echo of Bush's selection of Guantánamo as a extraterritorial not-U.S.-not-foreign no man's land, the Obama Administration claimed that it buried Bin Laden at sea because it couldn't find a country to accept his body within the required 24 hours after death, and to avoid the possibility that his grave would become a shrine for Muslim extremists. However, Bin Laden's Wahhabi sect of Islam allows neither shrines nor burial at sea.
Of course, few Americans care about respecting Muslim religious sensibilities. So this decision went over well in the States. Countless editorial cartoons depicted sharks feasting on the carcass of the Bogeyman of the Twin Towers.
But it will inflame Muslim purists. Worse than that, dumping Osama into the Indian Ocean feeds an image the United States would be smart to shake, of a superpower hell-bent on occupying Muslim lands, stealing their oil and trashing their religion.
On the hearts-and-minds front, Americans' chest-thumping is a PR disaster.
"Rot in Hell," blared the headline of the New York Daily News. "Justice has been done," pundits and politicians claimed--a strange endorsement of extrajudicial assassination by a nation based on the rule of law.
"Triumphalism and unapologetic patriotism are in order," wrote Eugene Robinson for The Washington Post. "We got the son of a bitch."
Islam teaches combatants to respect their enemies. The death of an opponent is tragic, sometimes a tragic necessity, but never trivial, never a subject for joking. A vanquished enemy should be dispatched quickly, presumably to be chastised by Allah for his wickedness in the afterlife, but he is never to be mocked. A Muslim should not enjoy war or combat, nor gloat when victorious. When the powerful crush the weak, as was the case with the U.S. killing of Bin Laden, dancing around like a beefy hunk of steroids spiking the football at the touchdown line makes one look small.
It also makes us look dumb. As anyone not drunk on bloodlust knows, the worst thing that could have happened to Osama Bin Laden would have been arrest followed by a fair trial.
(Ted Rall is the author of "The Anti-American Manifesto." His website is tedrall.com.)