I might be in a minority of one with this post, but that's OK. As long as one person can stay a slight distance away from the prevailing view, at least we can say we're still free. It goes without saying that none of my family have been murdered by Al Qa'eda or their associates, and will be the first to admit that if any of them had been, God forbid, it's likely that my views would be radically different.
I find it discomfiting to see crowds in societies based on law and the rule of law cheering the death of a person who was not a head of state, and who had never, to my knowledge, been convicted of any crime.
I find it discomfiting that a person who is not a head of state, who has never been convicted of any crime, and who is a national of one country, can be living in another country and be killed by the security forces of a third country without anybody, anywhere batting an eyelid about what seems to be the mind-boggling precedent this sets concerning everyone's personal safety. Then again, perhaps if we have nothing to hide, we have nothing to fear.
I find it discomfiting to see no apparent regret being expressed regarding the death of children, regardless of their age or degree of culpability. Bin Laden was 54 at the time of his death, meaning that he was 44 at the time of 9/11. I would consider it highly unlikely that any of his children would have been involved in either the planning or the execution of that act, and accordingly one is entitled to ask whether their deaths were 'necessary' in the context of the recent operation. Or does being a bad man's devoted son now automatically make you a target? If that is the case, then at least our security forces can never stand accused of failing to execute their responsibility to conduct counter-terrorism, with the emphasis on terrorism.
I find it discomfiting that the Pakistani state's collusion in his lengthy absence from public view should be so widely assumed, as if the English language has lost the verb 'to hide in plain sight', and nobody's noticed.
I find it discomfiting that a President of the United States, one who has had to release his own birth certificate into the public domain over two years after assuming his office because a significant and vocal minority of his own electorate don't believe he's eligible to hold it, should feel it necessary to be pictured, in casual clothing, sitting watching the action unfolding as if it were a late-night baseball game. To my mind, Barack Obama's behaviour in allowing himself to be pictured in this manner is a rank bastardisation of his office and its reponsibilities. He is the President of the United States, its forces' Commander-in-Chief. He has given the order for the deed to be done. Neither he nor anyone else without direct operational responsibility for its execution needs to see it being done. To my mind, it seemed to be an unwholesome gawping at the application of technology to modern warfare, resulting in that most soul-destroying legacy of modernism, the transformation of war into entertainment; like 'Patriot Games', but for real, with the fact that someone's children are being killed in front of him for no higher reason than that they are their father's children not really seeming to make any impact upon him.
I have to say, though, that the less charitable type of pundit might think that the timing of this attack on Bin Laden, coming as it does so soon after Obama has had to take drastic and extraordinary measures to prove his own fitness to lead, could be seen by some as being quite serendipitous for the president. Overnight, Obama has gone from being a divisive figure of suspicion to being The Man Who Shot Osama Bin Laden. The past week's events have shown that he might just be capable of printing both the truth and the legend. He might never have a better chance to make political capital throughout his soon-to-commence re-election campaign.
I have never been to Chicago, where he cut his political teeth, but I have heard that they play their politics rough there.
And in the context of wider foreign affairs, it might also be seen to be serendipitous when one considers that the Arab world is currently undergoing its greatest upheavals since the end of the imperial age. What better signal could there be to send out to the Islamists among the revolutionaries that there will be no Eighteenth Brumaire of Osama bin Laden to bring order out of chaos? This might be a signal to the Arabs that they can have their revolutions, but only on our terms. This may not be a bad thing, of course, but to my mind the possibility that that might be an aim of policy cannot go unremarked.
The author of a newspaper editorial I read earlier today wrote that Bin Laden was a coward because he didn't either go down fighting in Tora Bora, or blow himself up at a checkpoint. While I was reading it, it struck me that the author didn't really seem to have much grasp of the history of ideas.
We all seem to know such little history nowadays that our public intellectuals do not seem to know that the conditions which allow an Osama bin Laden to rise from obscurity recur again and again. Bin Laden was a bogeyman of the globalisation era, a Western educated and super-wealthy man who wanted to hide out in caves, a soi-disant sheikh whose followers would bring the skies down with box-cutters. Anyone who believes in this goal is deeply unpleasant, because box-cutters are deeply unpleasant weapons. If we are to take the words of those who knew him well, he had been sufficiently radicalised by the 1980's to go and fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. When that conflict was over, he and his men returned to Saudi Arabia, and found themselves excluded by an absolutist regime (the lady who described the Mujahideen as 'brave freedom fighters', is still going strong, and was invited to the Royal Wedding last week, unlike the nation's last two prime ministers). This, of course, only radicalised them against the rulers of Saudi Arabia.
There is a direct analogy between the Mujahideen who returned to Saudi Arabia from Afghanistan in the early 1990's and those members of the French aristocracy who returned home in the early 1780's after fighting in the American War of Independence. Both groups had, to some extent, been outsourced to their causes, their employment in these tasks seen as being a useful occupation to ensure they didn't make trouble at home. While it would have been more wholesome to our taste for the Bourbons to have adapted to the ways of Lafayette than for the Sauds to have adapted to Bin Laden's, the least one can say for the Sauds is that they have that horrible Bourbon tendency of forgetting nothing and learning nothing, and it's served them better than it did the Bourbons.
The chaos that ensued in France, of course, meant that within 20 years, another man who quite willingly let others do the dying for him had seized power; of that man, Dostoyevsky wrote,
"The real Master to whom all is permitted storms Toulon, makes a massacre in Paris, forgets an army in Egypt, wastes half a million men in the Moscow expedition and gets off with a jest at Vilna. And altars are set up to him after his death, and so all is permitted. No, such people it seems are not of flesh but of bronze!”
I'm not making that claim for Osama bin Laden, of course; but what made him so popular? To my mind, it was what made Napoleon so popular. He gave those who served in the Grande Armee an idea. It was an idea that millions of men were prepared to follow, and die for, and it took a long time to die after he was gone. In one sense, the advent of the European Union might be said to be the small man in the big hat's final, greatest triumph, a mere two centuries after his death. Napoleon didn't need to throw himself in front of guns at Austerlitz or Jena. Those who believed in his idea, or even just in the idea of him, were more than happy to do that on his behalf.
That any people, anywhere, should be receptive to the ideas of Osama bin Laden, or even just to the idea of Osama bin Laden, in the way that men were inspired by Napoleon is depressing to say the least. However, I am almost afraid to say that I think that idea won't die until we engage with those who find it attractive on their terms, not ours. In the age of the drone aircraft and the cluster bomb, when 90% of warfare is directed against civilians and we seem to think we can make people love us by killing their wives and children from 40,000 feet, that doesn't seem to be an option. The genie might not go back into the bottle as quickly as we might like.
Sometimes, it really does seem like 1811 all over again.
Labels: Of Republics And Empires