News of Osama bin Laden’s death broke last night just in time for this morning’s papers to carry on their front pages his wiry-bearded ascetic’s face and their own triumphant headlines. Thus the latest, but surely not the last, in the grim pageant of spectacle that has marked our decade of the Global War on Terror: apocalyptic Manhattan, bombs over Baghdad, the naked figures of Abu Ghraib, and killer drones buzzing over the western Himalayas.
What does bin Laden’s death mean? Regarding al Qaeda’s near-term operational capacities, most analysts are saying that it will have a disruptive but not serious impact, given how insulated and removed from the day-to-day running of the organization bin Laden was. In the mid to long-term, in his capacity as a symbolic figure of mobilizing power among radical militants, it seems likely that the blow of bin Laden’s death will be balanced by the appeal of his martyrdom. And it will be a relief, at least in the West, to be spared some of the conspiracy theories fed by a decade of a superpower’s unsuccessful chase after its ostensible nemesis.
Osama bin Laden’s importance had always been inflated by the prominence given to him by the U.S. government and the media. Like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq, his menacing figure provided a useful symbolic counterpoint, one that could provide a concrete image for the shadowy threat of Islamic terrorism during the past 10 years. Thus perhaps the most important impact of bin Laden’s death will be the closure that it provides for this great fictional drama, born out of the justified trauma of 9/11 but fed into a world-spanning and violent narrative by the conjunction of an activist vision of Western "civilizing" military power and the private interests that benefitted from its colossally expensive exercise. It was a blinding and exceptionalist call to arms that motivated an unprecedented erosion of U.S. civil liberties, the shameful use of torture and arbitrary detention, the waste of nearly a trillion dollars on fruitless wars, and the deaths of over a hundred thousand innocents.
The demise of bin Laden thus moves us closer to a return to collective sanity and away from the bloodlust and rage that yet mark many of our reactions to his death. It seems possible now to imagine a day where the specter of Islamic terrorism as an existential threat will be as obsolete and laughable as that of World Communism. But to compare today to the fall of the Berlin Wall would be misleading. There can be no neat and easy victory over terrorism, because policing militant groups is nothing like a war, as bin Laden’s death in a mid-sized Pakistani city highlights. While not a single phenomenon, terrorism is a threat that has been around for over a century, though countering it has been made more difficult by the increasing vulnerabilities brought about by new technologies and global interconnectedness.
Indeed, the Global War on Terror has illustrated the troubling contradictions that underpin our age: That the West’s attractions of modernity, material progress, and liberalism can prove unsatisfying to smart and ambitious young men; that our allies in the Muslim world might be among the greatest sources of the terrorists who would do us harm; that the freedom promised by an age of unlimited connection across information and physical space might engender a draconian self-repression; and that a new golden age of capitalism might leave such ruined states and peoples on its margins. Today, we find the roots of terror in the growing instability of the world’s economy and climate, which in turn prefigures deeper coming threats to the global order. The perverse irony of the War on Terror is how badly it is has distracted our political and moral will from the great challenges of our time. This is bin Laden’s legacy.
Matthieu Aikins is a magazine writer who reports on Afghanistan for Harper’s Magazine, the Walrus, Popular Science, and others. Follow him on twitter @mattaikins.