America after Osama - Rafia Zakaria - Wednesday 4th May 2011

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CROWDS emerged on American streets minutes after the news was released. In small towns and big cities, across the country a celebration was in order, bakeries started to give out free bagels and stores scrambled to print T-shirts saying `Gotcha!` atop pictures of Osama bin Laden.
In his statement, President Obama drew attention to the thousands of Muslims killed by Al Qaeda and the fact that justice had finally been done. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated his message, emphasising the continuing fight against terrorism and highlighting the crucial role played by Pakistan in apprehending Osama bin Laden.
Unlike Pakistanis, whose daily exchanges with suicide bombings, drone attacks and assassinations have meant a close reckoning vis-à-vis the war on terror and its costs, Americans have been somewhat insulated from its more violent effects.
While the languishing American economy has promoted much ire against expenditures on wars and onerous security procedures have promoted annoyance with anti-terror efforts, the American imagination has remained suspended on the events of Sept 11, 2001. The memory of that moment, and the need to avenge it has defined American perceptions in the decade that has followed.
The death of Osama bin Laden thus provides the logical end and emotional closure that had eluded the US in the decade since Sept 11, 2001. While critics of American operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have tried to draw attention to the terrible cost of revenge and the hundreds of civilians killed in both countries, the American public has largely ignored these details. For them, the calculus has remained focused on the individual, the bearded, turbaned figure of Osama, a visible incarnation of evil, whose persistence meant the continuation of vulnerability and insecurity. As long as Osama was alive, most Americans believed, America was unsafe. Now that he is dead many will assume that safety has returned to their homeland.
In this sense, the death of Osama matters far more in symbolic rather than actual terms. As a political symbol, it presents a fortuitous opportunity to the Obama administration to paint itself as the winning team that has finally delivered the victory that Americans have been aching for. Plagued by dismally low approval ratings, recent divisive spats with Republicans over the budget and a public troubled by rising fuel prices, the administration had been desperate for such deliverance.
The aftermath of Osama`s death hence provides rich opportunities to cast a centrist Democratic president in vibrant patriotic colours, normally the exclusive preserve of war-happy Republicans, with the Obama emerging from it as the heroic leader who finally re-established American safety and reinstalled American pride.
Like all moments of triumph and jubilation, the current one is characteristically averse to sombre evaluations and objective considerations. Celebrations are hard to come by in today`s gray world and the murky ramparts of wars initiated with naïve ambitions of nation-building have begrudgingly denied Americans such moments.
As a consequence, the analysts appearing on American television channels in the aftermath of the death have refrained from raising questions about the operation or pointing out the questionable significance of eliminating Osama bin Laden. Serious and laudatory, they have sternly refused also to capitalise even on the humorous opportunities presented by the capture: the profusion of pillows on Osama`s bed, the decisive end to all terrorism and the giddy freedom of once again being able to carry liquids on planes.
If they did choose to pose serious questions, they might wonder if the hunt for Osama bin Laden has been worth much beyond its capacity to provide existential affirmations and a boost in presidential approval ratings. They may wonder for example, whether the presence of American troops in Afghanistan has produced a veritably inexhaustible supply of new Osama bin Ladens, whether the drone attacks in Pakistan`s northern areas have generated such large stores of anti-Americanism as to make his death redundant.
They may also pause to consider whether the moral losses incurred by his pursuit — American support for torture, extrajudicial killings and indefinite detentions in Guantanamo — have incurred heavy costs that will continue, in some cases denying the death of a killer of thousands the derision he deserves.
There is, however, one significant group for whom the death of Osama bin Laden can deliver a much-awaited and urgently needed reprieve. Hours after the news of Osama bin Laden`s death, CNN crews arrived at mosques and Islamic centres around the US to record the American-Muslim reaction to the death.
The resulting clips of American Muslims rejoicing at the death of Osama bin Laden aired continuously on a variety of American channels may have provided in a few seconds what a decade of denunciations of terrorism has been unable to do — extricate a community from the clutches of suspicion.
Osama bin Laden`s death does not mean an end to terrorism; it will not bring back either the Americans that died on that dark day in September or the Afghans and Iraqis that have died in the decade since. The terror unleashed by Osama bin Laden has imposed costs that his death will not eliminate; the world we live in today is a place where suicide bombings and beheadings no longer evoke shock.
Osama bin Laden is indeed dead, but his death has accomplished a popularisation of hatred whose virulence may well be tragically persistent. Pakistanis feel justified in hating America with the unthinking passion of the silently vanquished and Americans experience a feeling of righteousness in suspecting all Muslims on the bare presumption that they all sympathise with the killers of 9/11. n
If Osama bin Laden`s death can deal a blow to this expanding mistrust and the denigration of human life it has engendered, we can all perhaps partake of a more meaningful celebration.
The writer is a US-based attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

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