Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

02 May 2011

Bin Laden Dead

How fitting that the death of the world’s most wanted terrorist should come on Holocaust Memorial Day! Both the Holocaust and 9/11 were exercises in the murder of innocents.

The Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust led what was arguably the most powerful military tyranny in human history. The perpetrators of 9/11 were relatively powerless―an unknown band of crazed extremists. In the end, both came to naught, and for a simple reason, fundamental to human nature. The deliberate killing of innocents accomplishes nothing but making righteous people angry.

Bin Laden’s misguided followers will call him a “martyr.” But martyr to what? In the end, what did he accomplish? Nothing. Nada. Zip. Except for killing thousands of innocent people, including many Muslims, and finally himself. (According to news reports, American forces gave bin Laden a chance to surrender peaceably before killing him.) On reflection, most thinking people, including Muslims, will see these points sooner or later.

Bin Laden’s ultimate self-professed goal was the liberation from tyranny of his birthplace, Saudi Arabia, plus Egypt. In Egypt at least, that process is well under way. But the real martyr to liberation is Mohamed Bouazizi, the previously unknown Tunisian street seller whose self-immolation sparked the Arab Spring. “Martyrdom” in any language means sacrificing oneself for a cause, not others, and certainly not innocent others.

Bin Laden achieved a brief infamy. He used the complexity and openness of modern society to murder a lot of people―not a terribly difficult task if you are determined and ruthless enough. But once time to gain perspective has passed, Bouazizi’s name will rate a page in history, bin Laden’s only a footnote.

Even as a purported military tactic, bin Laden’s approach was and is fundamentally flawed. He sough to liberate Saudi Arabia and Egypt by attacking the United States. His theory was that, by supporting those countries’ tyrannical governments with its immense power, the United States was responsible for oppressing their peoples.

But bin Laden could not see cause and effect. Even defeating the United States―a goal as far from his capability as transporting Saudi Arabia to another galaxy―would not realize his aim. He would still have had to bring about the defeat of the clever and powerful Saudi Princes, which he and his small band of extremists had been unable to do for their entire careers.

No one else can give a people freedom. They have to struggle or fight for it, just as we did and every free people has done since Magna Carta. That’s what Arabs and Muslims are beginning see right now, in the Arab Spring. And already they have accomplished far more in a few months than bin Laden and his band of nuts did in the decade since 9/11.

The President was right to warn of retaliation by extremists. But neither he nor we should make too much of that danger. We have had enough of fear and fear-mongering.

As the President promised and I had hoped, he got bin Laden in his first term. And the Spring of Arab and Muslim liberation now beginning has totally eclipsed bin Laden’s twisted movement in the imagination of the Arab and Muslim world. It was Bouazizi and the peaceful martyrs of Tahrir Square who did what bin Laden said he wanted to do, and with far less “collateral damage.”

Attorney General Holder described 9/11 as the crime of the century. He was exactly right. So why did we allow an unknown and tiny band of extremists to declare “war” on us? Why did we treat their crimes like a war? Bin Laden met his end, as he should have, in a police action by special forces and the CIA. We should no more have given him the status of a warring nation than we did Al Capone.

But we will have plenty of time later to analyze our own mistakes. Right now, it is enough to savor the moment. Bin Laden’s death by itself would be enough. But together with the Arab Spring, it promises to close the age of terrorism that began with the first Arab-perpetrated airplane hijacking in the early seventies.

Terrorism is on its way out, not because it doesn’t make headlines, but because it doesn’t work. Sooner or later Arabs and Muslims, whose ancestors created algebra and algorithms, will figure that out. So in Churchillian terms, today marks not the end, but the beginning of the end, of terrorism by Arab and Islamic extremists.

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