Osama bin Laden’s death comes as great news for American counter-terrorism efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, the American civilian response has treaded too far in its fervent and often mindless patriotism. The youth, in particular, have responded with too much emotion and too little reason. For example, the U of C chapter of Sigma Phi Epsilon launched a party immediately after news of bin Laden’s death had broken. According to its Facebook event, the party is aimed at “celebrating the death of America’s most wanted enemy.” Students across the country are engaged in similarly excessive adulation of a perceived American victory against terrorism, and the general population is exploding with cheer in light of retribution.
The flow of patriotism sweeping the nation following the assassination is not abominable; it is justified in that it represents united achievement after 10 long years of struggle and sacrifice. But the celebration is ultimately too much, too soon. Though bin Laden will not be spearheading terrorist attacks anymore, Al Qaeda will not be dismantled any time soon. Bin Laden’s death would have been more important 10 years ago, when he possessed more power and influence within the organization. For the past decade, he was mostly just a face, a symbol, an idea. Before we applaud America's triumph, we must remember that dangerous individuals like Egypt’s Ayman al-Zawahri and Yemen’s Anwar al-Awlaki are still undeterred. Our war has in no way ended – Afghanistan and Pakistan are still virulent pits of corruption, terrorism, and oppression. The killings of top Al Qaeda officials like bin Laden are merely symbolic victories—nothing tangible, nothing concrete, and nothing substantial.
Even more importantly, let’s not forget the often counterproductive catalysts of our military achievement. According to The New York Times, Al Qaeda detainees at the infamous Guantanamo Bay detention facility told U.S. military interrogators some time ago that bin Laden used a specific courier to maintain contact with the outside world.’ This information assisted U.S. intelligence officials in indirectly locating bin Laden’s whereabouts.’ In addition, the notoriously corrupt Pakistani ISI gave a lead about the highly secure compound bin Laden was residing in. But, even though these institutions did assist us, Guantanamo Bay still evades ethics and the Pakistani I.S.I. is still a dubious and unreliable ally (the compound bin Laden was residing in was located less than an hour away from the I.S.I. headquarters).’
So let us reflect on our precarious relationships with these institutions: Are they maintained only to gain symbolic victories?’ They certainly haven’t extinguished the chaos still burning throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan, no matter how much they are lauded as being useful in targeting high-profile enemies. Will our victory in eliminating bin Laden validate unjust and unethical prisons as well as destructive relationships with foreign governments that are wholly ineffective in producing real regional progress? It seems that the goal of these relationships are to gain leads to target individuals and bring faces of depravity to their knees, a method that only dents the armor of these organizations. These dents are quickly refurbished with replacements of new leaders and soldiers, bringing us back to square one. We must step back even further and ask: Do we perceive this struggle against terrorism as some sort of mystical, symbolic, cosmic war against good and evil, or as a realistic operation to extinguish organized threats against civilians around the world?
To succumb to the former perception is to succumb to a fantastical narrative that is unnecessarily wasting lives and money. To align with the latter perception is to align with a just initiative guided by rational purpose. The people’s happiness is justified, but a line has to be drawn somewhere. Our military operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan have been conducted in the name of those who lost their lives on 9/11, those families who have endured the pain of loss for a decade, and those service men and women who risked their lives to assist those in dire need. We cannot compromise our mission by using immoral means or displaying premature ignorance of international situations. We must realize that the assassination of Osama bin Laden is not cause for a drunken party celebrating a victory in some sort of cosmic, transcendental war. Our response to the death of such an iconic and vilified figure must reflect the fact that the event brings closure and peace for American victims and fighters, and confidence to the soldiers fighting the much more difficult struggle abroad to help rebuild a fallen state and protect the innocent against terror.
Suchin Gururangan is a first-year in the College.