As President Barack Obama sought the right tone in announcing Osama Bin Laden’s death – not too triumphal, not too cerebral -- Americans took to the streets, celebrating the news. They were frustrated, having waited nearly a decade to capture al Qaeda’s terrorist mastermind. Still, Osama must have suffered, fleeing from cave to cave. In many ways, that punishment imposed on Osama paralleled the punishment he tried imposing on the civilized world. The terrorist wants millions to feel perpetually harassed, everywhere targeted, constantly endangered. The man constantly on the lam is perpetually harassed, everywhere targeted, and constantly endangered.
Osama Bin Laden fancied himself the preacher-terrorist, a Jihadist firing off religious fatwas one minute and RPGs the next. He emerged unwittingly as a teacher-terrorist. His blood-splattered biography taught the world important lessons, including:
We cannot escape history: Too many Americans awoke the morning of September 11, thinking that we were enjoying a holiday from history. The Soviet Union had fallen. The Dow Jones was rising. Electronic gadgets were proliferating. Serious thinkers and superficial commentators were feeding this notion that Americans transcended history – using “history” as a euphemism for troubles.
Al Qaeda terrorism abruptly ended America’s post-Cold War idyll, highlighting even a super-power’s vulnerability in the modern world. But the post-9/11 assumptions that this mass trauma would make American society more serious proved as false as the September 10th assumptions that peace and prosperity would last forever or that anyone could get a free pass from the various forces large and small which accumulate and shape us -- which we then call history.
We can defeat terrorism: Even before September 11, but certainly when the World Trade Center towers collapsed, the conventional wisdom imputed far too much power to terrorists. These big bangs in New York and Washington, as well as the latest wave of Palestinian terror that had started a full year earlier in Israel, seemed to be harbingers of perpetual attacks. But two leaders who were not afraid to be hated, President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, showed that the old cliché was true – the best defense is a good offense. Just reacting to terrorist attacks was not enough; pushing back militarily, hunting terrorists down, keeping them on the defensive, was the best way of preventing future attacks. Terrorists have trouble planning attacks on the run or under bombardment.
Islamists – and eventually the Palestinians -- also suffered from their own, often-overlooked, version of blowback. Suicide bombings of office buildings and cafes, buses and bar mitzvahs triggered mass revulsion. The terrorists lost what little romance they cultivated in the 1960s and 1970s, appearing to be barbarians who hurt their own cause. Ten years later, Al Qaeda has nothing to show for its spectacular mass slaughter in 2001; even Hamas is more likely to deny a terrorist attack than take “credit” for it.
Islamism is evil: Prior to 9/11, the statement was doubly problematic. Many of our greatest thinkers recoiled from such judgmental proclamations, especially concerning any non-Western phenomena. The crime of 9/11 was so dastardly it shocked many -- not all -- back into a language of good and evil, right and wrong. And, as politically incorrect as it may be, many recognized that this fight was not just against a tactic – terrorism – but an ideology – Islamism.
Islamism is a Jihadist, holy war-oriented, perversion of Islam, rooted in some Koranic teachings, but ignoring others. Despite their fury against Bin Laden’s brutal Islamism, few Americans attacked Arab-Americans or Muslim-Americans. George W. Bush deserves tremendous credit for repudiating such bigotry. American-Arabs and Muslims also helped themselves. Most are neither Islamists nor Jihadists. The nineteen hijackers were foreign infiltrators not homegrown terrorists. And anyone who examined America’s Arab and Muslim population saw law-abiding citizens, many of whom sought refuge in the United States from this fundamentalist fanaticism.
Israel is not the problem: Bin Laden’s own words demonstrated his hatred for the West, and for America’s military presence in Saudi Arabia. He only redirected his Jihad toward Israel after 9/11, in a bid for popularity. As with this year’s Arab Spring, the facts from the Middle East disturbed the conventional wisdom in the West. Nevertheless, so many supposed experts continued buying Palestinians’ propaganda line that solving their conflict is the keystone to world peace, when their future is not even the central regional challenge.
Democracies are resilient: September 11 resulted from a dramatic American intelligence failure. Following September 11, Americans feared terrorism would triumph. President Bush made many, significant mistakes – or, as Republicans preferred to say it, mistakes were made. Yet, like Londoners in the 1940s, or Jerusalemites in the 2000s, Americans showed a grit and a grace, a unity and a sense of community, a softness in their hearts and a toughness in their spirits, that ultimately defeated the terrorists and healed the country, even as over 3000 families, friendship circles, neighborhoods, communities continue to cope with unfathomable losses.
Presidencies often converge: For all their differences in tone, style, and ideology, Presidents Bush and Obama have responded in remarkably similarly ways to their respective presidencies’ biggest crises. Bush looked downright Democratic in turning on the stimulus spigot to spend America out of its economic trauma. Obama has looked downright Republican in assassinating America’s enemies whenever and wherever he can. Perhaps, it is worth ratcheting down the rhetoric, just a bit, and understanding that responsible democratic leaders often have more limited options than it seems, and that responsible leaders often act responsibly, regardless of ideology.
Bin Laden is dead but al Qaeda isn’t. These and other lessons should bring some moral clarity and communal grit to the fight. Seeing problems clearly and in proportion does not make them disappear, but does make them more manageable.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGillUniversity and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.” email@example.com