As I watched the news of Osama bin Laden’s death unfold the other night, I couldn’t help but feel uneasy at the sight of people cheering, singing, and waving flags in celebration on the street in Washington DC and New York City. Now, let me be clear: I am not saying this out of respect for bin Laden. I say this because there are much larger issues to consider if we’re really serious about averting future attacks.
Citizens of this country often exalt our democratic ideals, values, processes, and system. For many of us, they are the bedrock of our national identity – vital components of our culture that define who we are in a global community where we encourage others to live as we do. Looking at these recent events that have transpired through the lens of how we perceive ourselves, I take issue with celebrating the calculated acts of killing someone and expeditiously burying him at sea.
Undoubtedly, religious and political violence aren’t anything new. What baffles me is our persistent unwillingness to develop an understanding of why they happen as we settle for overly simplistic explanations that are devoid of insight. Since terrorism is a complex phenomenon to wrap our minds around (very much like crime, poverty, and drug abuse), we have adopted irresponsible shortcuts such as “They hate our freedom,” to make sense of the radicalism. If we’re truly honest with ourselves, we must admit that it’s far more complicated than that.
Furthermore, many believe that killing one individual will somehow undermine a movement of countless others who harbor similar feelings. Ideologically driven people who are willing to die for their cause are not going to be deterred by the death of a leader. In addition, even if one group disbands, other people come along who embrace the ideas and they eventually form new organizations.
As a society, we repeatedly attack symptoms instead of addressing the root of the problem, and in pursuing this course we guarantee that it will eventually manifest itself again. While you might be able to temporarily suppress terrorism using military force, you will not prevent it with bullets or bombs over the long term. Here we need to explore global power differentials and the alienation that leads some people to lash out in such violent ways. Until we come to terms with these kinds of issues, I anticipate the bloodshed will only continue.
A version of this piece appeared in the Daily Chronicle on May 6, 2011.