I discovered through some very witty Facebook posts that Osama bin Laden was dead. While this marks an important step in counterterrorism, we should be careful how we choose to understand this national moment of unity 2.0. The coverage of the past week reflects the delinquency of the post-9/11 “us versus them” narrative perpetuated by too much of our mainstream media and too many of our national leaders. We’ve seen this script before.
It matters a great deal how American discourse is shaped because there has often been a straight line between misinformed anti-Muslim sentiment and waging wars whose consequences are felt at home and abroad.
Political pandering to the masses has errantly driven post-9/11 discourse. Too often there is an unwillingness to see Muslims and the Muslim world for all their complexities; it is merely sufficient to know that those who attacked us on 9/11 were Muslims and that they came from over there.
The manner in which we publically celebrate the death of a terrorist is important because it is ripe for exploitation, be it by al-Qaeda who wants revenge or American politicians who see an opportunity to warrant the use of torture.
Christine Korsgaard, a Harvard philosophy professor, says “If we confuse the desire to defeat an enemy with the desire for retribution against a criminal, we risk forming attitudes that are unjustified and ugly — the attitude that our enemy’s death is not merely a means to disabling him, but is in itself a kind of a victory for us, or perhaps even the attitude that our enemy deserves death because he is our enemy.” Substantiating emotions in the name of patriotism presents the proverbial slippery slope that often invites our government to pursue reckless policies in our name.
For example, the Bush administration was able to wage war in Iraq in large part because it asserted ties between Saddam Hussein and 9/11. Sure enough, polls indicate that 70 percecnt of Americans believed there was a connection. To excuse the negligence of the American media in the name of patriotism, much like we did in the lead-up to the Iraq War, assumes that the media does not operate from a position of power. Emotions were manipulated most often by individuals in influential positions with an agenda for wars in faraway places, where neither they nor their children would fight.
After President Obama delivered a speech last fall announcing the end of the American combat mission in Iraq, Frank Rich noted that that he omitted “any feeling for what has happened to our country during the seven-and-a-half-year war whose ‘end’ he was marking.”
So, maybe the killing of bin Laden did provide a sense of closure to 9/11, especially for families of victims, but in doing so it also prompted escapism for many others.
Charles Krauthammer went so far as to say, “The bin Laden operation is the perfect vindication of the war on terror.” It is offensive to claim that the killing of a single terrorist justifies the deaths of thousands of American soldiers and countless others on the ground. Krauthammer’s version of reality gives bin Laden more credit than he deserves.
Moreover, that bin Laden was a Cold War ally of the United States, or that the war in Afghanistan has become the longest in our history is apparently unimportant to our understanding the depths of terrorism. There is no question that the American misadventure in Iraq actually lengthened bin Laden’s life.
I am skeptical about this National Moment of Unity 2.0 because we lived through the original in the fall of 2001 when the everyday Muslims were cast with suspicion. Warrantless surveillance, no-fly lists, prolonged detention—all find their political, social, and even moral legitimacy in how the public felt during the that time of so-called unity.
I was in my 2nd period 10th grade Spanish class when the towers were hit. It wasn’t until lunch that I got a sense of what this might mean for me as a Muslim. A boy remarked that “the Constitution says everyone is equal except for the Muslims.” By 9th period, I heard another student say “We need to kill them all, wherever they are.”
Where I am now in Turkey, I’m often asked how I feel about the recent news, but more often than I’d like to admit, I’ve had to resort to “Yes, he actually is dead” and “No, Michelle Obama was not doing a celebratory death dance.” In my time abroad I’ve learned that Donald Trump isn’t the only one interested in conspiracy theories.
Yet it has been easy to communicate that bin Laden killed a lot of Americans, and we were eager to see him gone.
A common refrain is that Muslims now have the opportunity to wrestle our religion back from the extremists. But this overstates the case. Sure, it is easier without bin Laden, but this notion ignores the power dynamics in American discourse. Moreover, we should not dismiss the progress American Muslims have made to advance the cause of pluralism and understanding. Organizations like the Inner-City Muslim Action Network and Muslim Public Affairs Council weren’t just sitting around waiting for bin Laden to die to do their important work. The same must be said of revolutionaries in Tunisia, Egypt, and across the Middle East.
While there can be no rescue mission for the last decade, there must be for the embarrassingly low level of discourse in America today. Our bin Laden-less future depends on it.
Abed Z. Bhuyan is a graduate of Georgetown University and is a Teach For America alum. He is currently teaching English in Turkey as a Fulbright scholar.
*The views expressed by the author are solely his own and not those of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations.*