Osama bin Laden is dead. Naturally this milestone achieved our undivided attention–a collective state which in our user-supported media culture comes at a premium–very quickly. Like all milestones, the meaning in it isn’t the single step taken but as a marker of how far one has traveled–or in the present instance, how far a vast nation has traveled. The Liberal Ironist agrees that this justified killing has larger-than-life significance.
The fact that a woman bystander used by one of bin Laden’s associates as a human shield in a failed bid to save himself was killed along with bin Laden and 3 other terrorists, I think, depicts Osama bin Laden’s life as much as anything.
Extremes of optimism and pessimism will abound in the responses of coming days to this signature event. We should consider both the enthusiasts who say this is a real victory and a cause for celebration and those who fret that we have created a martyr without intrinsically weakening al-Qaeda’s capacity to commit acts of terrorism. The pre-existence of multiple perspectives on what this news portends is reflected early in the New York Times‘ lead article on this development:
“Bin Laden’s demise is a defining moment in the American-led fight against terrorism, a symbolic stroke affirming the relentlessness of the pursuit of those who attacked New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001. What remains to be seen, however, is whether it galvanizes Bin Laden’s followers by turning him into a martyr or serves as a turning of the page in the war in Afghanistan and gives further impetus to Mr. Obama to bring American troops home.
“How much his death will affect Al Qaeda itself remains unclear. For years, as they failed to find him, American leaders have said that he was more symbolically important than operationally significant because he was on the run and hindered in any meaningful leadership role. And yet, he remained the most potent face of terrorism around the world and some of those who played down his role in recent years nonetheless celebrated his death.”
The Liberal Ironist considers this good news, but on terms much-broader than most are probably thinking right now: embarrassing as it was that bin Laden survived all these years, his death serves as both a dramatic demonstration and vindication of state power.
True, the Liberal Ironist enjoys hair-splitting and to treat contenders in many debates with equanimity, but we should never feel embarrassment or even doubt that some transgressions are always and everywhere wrong. The mass murder of innocent civilians is always and everywhere wrong. Much of political theory for about half a century (and this is just as true of the Great Books-oriented, obscurantist Straussians on the right as it is of the regulation- and social norm-deconstructing Foucaultians and Capitalism-prognosticating quasi-Marxist “Critical Theorists” on the left) has been based on the same narrative of postmodern (read: Nietzschean) private rebellion against a stupefying triumphal hegemony of a supposedly objective and just political order based on scientific and material progress, and popular self-determination. In the exact same way fans of competing sports teams sometimes hate each others’ symbols while really “sharing 1 soul” in their knowledge of and love for the same game, Straussians, Foucaultians and Critical Theorists tell interesting narratives about the integrity-sapping mundane that can only be opposed by individuals armed with a lexicon of rebellion reinforced by the private company of like-minded individuals. The state is either a passive actor or even (as in many strains of Foucaultian theory) the central antagonist in this political ontology. As the “ironist” component of Liberal ironism indicates, the idea of a private, non-political or contra-political worldview is of the highest estimation to the Liberal Ironist, the consummation of Jesus’s assurance to the Jews that it was moral to pay Roman taxes because they should “render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and render to God that which is God’s.” But the other side to Liberal ironism, and no mere jury-rigged addition, is Liberalism.
Osama bin Laden wasn’t just an Islamist, or a militant Islamist, or a Wahhabist. He was a subscriber of Sayd Qutb’s brand of what is essentially Islamist anarchism. In his reading of this radical anti-state ideology, bin Laden sought to create a religious war between “Islam” and “the West.” (Crude fear-mongering by self-appointed authorities such as Samuel Huntington and Michael Scheuer played into his hands with a striking lack of self-awareness.) To their credit, Presidents W. Bush and Obama both remained above this effort to draw indelible lines between imagined peoples constantly. If bigots in the United States (including their “respectable wing” of Samuel Huntingtons and Michael Scheuers) had not been marginalized by strong Presidential leadership, though access to our purposeless and profit-driven TV news media they might have effectively designated hundreds of millions of Muslims (who need our help to save their societies from violence and whose help we need to cordon-off and destroy Islamist terrorism) as “fundamentally on the other side.” I have always felt President George W. Bush deserves credit for ruling-out hate-mongering and refusing to patronize our worst impulses; actually, I thanked him for that in my inaugural blog post.
And before skepticism sets in, I’ll take this opportunity to insist that President Obama does deserve a lot of credit for this. He shifted much of the United States government’s focus to military and intelligence operations addressing counterterrorism against al-Qaeda–operations that had to be drastically-curtailed while President W. Bush pursued a war of ambition in Iraq whose costs he failed to grasp. He also shifted soldiers from Iraq to Afghanistan and carried-out more drone bombing runs against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan than President Bush ever did. This shift of focus and tactics wasn’t inevitable, and it wasn’t some Defense Department process going on automatically without the President’s input; President Obama ordered it. George W. Bush focused on Iraq–a strategic blunder for which he is fully-responsible–almost constantly. Barack Obama shifted focus to the actual threat and developed a different set of focused policies to deal with it. Bin Laden is dead because President Obama shifted our focus to the fight against al-Qaeda. There’s little debate that his approval rating will rise with this news; what followers of American politics may ironically not realize is that he earned it.
Bin Laden’s goal was largely to create a siege mentality among Muslims to create a pan-Islamic consciousness on his particular fanatical strain of Sunni Islam. Attempting to forge a religious consciousness out of a siege mentality is incredibly crass; sacrificing thousands of innocent lives for your concept of what one’s victims’ lives should be is the Liberal Ironist’s very definition of intentional evil.
One should never feel embarrassed to say that Osama bin Laden was evil. There is nothing naive about believing that evil exists; on the contrary, it is naive to think that the ready availability of demystifying psychological or historical explanations, all of which may be perfectly true, “naturalizes” a malefactor sufficiently so that he is not evil. Nothing we may learn about bin Laden–not any deep-seated childhood trauma involving a parent he may have suffered, nor any transmuted need to impress a girl, nor some hidden sexuality or suppressed perversion, nor some chemical imbalance in his brain, changes the immanent presence of evil evident in his words and his deeds; corroborating evidence for such naturalistic theories can only show us how the dark kernel may have cohered and grown in his brain. But that darkness was as real as anything on this Earth.
Bin Laden’s goal was to arouse a pan-Islamic consciousness that would cause the states of the World to wither away; considering this utopian vision of a rectified society supposedly free of all forms of repression, bin Laden’s form of militant Islamism really is just another very-20th century ideological vehicle of violence. As such the Liberal Ironist thinks it a meaningful if unsurprising component of this victory that a state action killed him. Bin Laden’s death came at the hands of a joint CIA-US Special Forces mission, intended to apprehend him if possible but which apparently ended with 1 professionally-fired bullet to the head when he attempted to attack the strike team. This was the work of the intelligence-gathering and military coordination of a state, a power which, for all the perversity to which it has been used in the past century, at its best remains the most-capable means of keeping the peace humankind has known. On hearing of the operation that killed bin Laden on the news, the Liberal Ironist remembered the words of the Conservative Realist Richard Weaver from his classic tome Ideas Have Consequences:
“…One sees this truth well exemplified in the extreme formalization of the soldier’s conduct, a formalization which is carried into the chaos of battle; a well-drilled army moving into action is an imposition of maximum order upon maximum disorder. Thus the historical soldier is by genus not the blind, unreasoning agent of destruction which some contemporary writers make him out to be. He is rather the defender of the ultima ratio, the last protector of reason. Any undertaking that entails the sacrifice of life has implications of trascendence, and the preference of death to other forms of defeat, to the ‘fate worse than death,’ is, on the secular level, the highest example of dedication…”
The effective use of intelligence and military force to attempt to arrest bin Laden–answering his meaningless violence with the authority of law–and when meeting with resistance, to end the perverse life of this thoroughly-corrupted man–is not merely a victory but a vindication of the state in the exalted central purpose that a misguided philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, set for it 360 years ago.
That rightful purpose of the state is the protection of innocent life against its enemies, without regard for their pretenses.