The killing of OBL: therapy for the West

Why the shooting of a sickly has-been jihadist was turned into a momentous and historic occasion on a par with VJ Day.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

We’ve had VE Day and VJ Day – is VOBL Day next? Reading the excitable political commentary on the death of Osama bin Laden, I wouldn’t be surprised. The killing of the head of al-Qaeda has been treated as if it were a momentous occasion on a par with the Allies’ defeat of Germany and Japan in the Second World War. Some reports even point out that Hitler’s death was likewise announced on 1 May, while newspaper headlines tell us this is ‘A great day in American history’. Perhaps VOBL Day will become a national holiday across the West, when people will gather to recall and celebrate the assassination of ‘the world’s most evil man’ (in the words of the Sun) and the fact that our children can now sleep peacefully in their beds.

There is an extraordinary disconnect between the response to bin Laden’s death and the circumstances in which the death occurred. And it’s a disconnect no one seems willing to face up to. The death has been celebrated as nothing less than an historic turning point for humanity, inviting solemn-cum-joyous statements from everyone from Barack Obama to Ban Ki-moon to Silvio Berlusconi, who wax lyrical about the world now being a ‘safer and better place’. Yet all that really happened in Pakistan is that a small group of American soldiers shot and killed an ageing, sickly man in a mansion, who was the nominal head of a small and increasingly fractured terrorist organisation and whose political isolation from the Arab masses had only recently been brilliantly illustrated by the Arab uprisings. The headlines should read ‘Has-been jihadist dead’; instead they say ‘World rejoices’.

This disconnect is revealing, because it graphically illustrates what has always been the true relationship between the West and al-Qaeda – a relationship where it was the fearful overreaction of Western governments to al-Qaeda that sustained the myth and alleged power of bin Laden and his so-called holy warriors. In the post-assassination commentary OBL is presented to us as the mighty figurehead of an organisation that posed a mortal threat to Western civilisation. In truth he was always an isolated actor, with little support, no army and few weapons, yet who benefited enormously from Western fears and confusion. It was Western society’s culture of fear that fed and nurtured him; he lived off it, vampire-style. The most powerful weapon in his armoury was not his access to cash or those crazy young guys willing to blow themselves up in his name, but rather the abject willingness of Western governments to change their way of life and panic their peoples in response to his threats and antics.

The impact of acts of terrorism is determined not only by the terrorists themselves, but also by how the target society chooses to respond to them. And Western nations, most notably America, Britain, France and Spain, reacted to al-Qaeda threats or attacks in such a way that they amplified them, allowing what were mostly sporadic assaults by tiny and isolated groups of men to have a deep and long-lasting impact across society. In instituting tough new security measures, liberty-allergic legislation and a general sense of panic and unease, Western governments not only did most of the terrorists’ dirty work for them – they also advertised their institutional vulnerability to al-Qaeda and its affiliates. They effectively sent to bin Laden the message: ‘We are weak. So weak that even you, one man in a cave, can have a massively disproportionate impact on our liberty and lives.’ The truly decisive factor in Islamic terrorism over the past 10 years, the thing that allowed this ragtag ‘army’ of wannabe martyrs to rattle half the world and encouraged them to continue doing so, was not the strength of al-Qaeda, but the loudly trumpeted weakness of the West.

This explains the disconnect between the claims currently being made about bin Laden (that he was an awesomely evil force who single-handedly made the world an unsafe place) and the reality of bin Laden (he was a poorly bloke holed up in a house in Pakistan with an ever-shrinking entourage). What makes the wild celebrations of an unofficial VOBL Day even more bizarre is that in recent years bin Laden’s political and terror cachet had waned enormously: he was even less significant and world-threatening than he had been in 2001. For the past five years at least, maybe even longer, he has been the radical Islamist equivalent of an ageing rock star – a bit like John Lennon when he was tucked away in the Dakota building in the late 1970s, living off past hits and releasing the occasional crap audio recording to satisfy his fans and the tribute acts who made up al-Qaeda’s various terror cells.

Even now, even amidst the overblown claims that the killing of one man is a victory for world peace and evidence that ‘America can do whatever we set our mind to’ (in President Obama’s words), still Western officials and observers advertise their profound sense of angst and insecurity. They ask ‘what will happen next?’. They frenetically express fear of retaliation. They launch security clampdowns at airports and embassies. They send, once again, to all-comers, a message about their existential discombobulation and institutional vulnerability, almost inviting some chancer to take over OBL’s role as no.1 thorn in the side of the West, or, more accurately, self-inflicted wound in the side of the West.

The political incohesion of the West, its inability to be gung-ho even following the assassination of a widely reviled man, was well illustrated by America’s treatment of bin Laden’s body. Epically torn between the knowledge that the absence of a body would fuel conspiracy theories and the fact that holding on to the body for more than 24 hours might rile sensitive Muslims, the US opted to wash and pray over and then dump bin Laden’s body at sea as quickly as possible: the world’s first-ever PC, religiously-sensitive political assassination. The real aim seemed to be to get rid of the carcass with extreme speed, almost as if it were itself an evil entity, with American forces treating it in a borderline medieval fashion. Destroy the witch, dispose of the witch, pretend the witch never existed.

It is fitting that the main way American officials have talked about the death of OBL is in therapeutic terms, arguing that it provides ‘closure’ for those who lost loved ones on 9/11. Because in essence this killing is a form of therapy for America, and for Western leaders more broadly, providing them with a fleeting feeling of satisfaction and a momentary high but not with any serious political momentum or solution to international problems. Beyond the therapy, the political issues are far harder to address, since what the West has done in Afghanistan and Iraq post-9/11, and what it has done to its ally of Pakistan in its pursuit of bin Laden, has created a destabilising dynamic that will make the actions of bin Laden look like child’s play in comparison.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

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Topics Politics


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