Osama Bin Laden started his career as a man, but by the time he became a household name in the US, he wasn't really a man anymore. An icon, maybe, and idea. The focal point for all our fears, justified or not, about who was an enemy and what they wanted from us. He had a face, he had a history. But somehow it was hard to think of him as a person, an older man sitting out there somewhere in the world, eating lunch, brushing his teeth, typing memos to his underlings. How could we? We saw him only a few short times after that, and we knew nothing at all about his daily life or what he was up to. He was just a name which came to stand for hate, fear, death. I actually assumed that he was already dead, but like any boogeyman we'd never really know for sure.
I expected to hear news reports in 20 years from now ask the question of whatever happened to him. "If he is indeed still alive today," they'd hedge, "he'd be in his 90s, and unlikely age for a man his his condition and his line or work." We'd guess. We'd feel pretty sure. Good intellegence would tell us this or that.
But we wouldn't *know*.
I thought we'd never be able to diminish him to something human again. That he'd gradually merge into the icons of our time. Slowly but surely cease to need any flesh and bones to be our adversary, our albatross.
I think we probably ought to be thanking our lucky starts that things went down this way. It really doesn’t matter exactly how much strategic value Bin Laden had, if killing him would make the world safer, etc. Hell, in all likihood he didn’t even have much to do with the 9/11 attacks directly. But he’s the face that got associated with it, and that was his doing as much as ours. He got what he wanted, which was a decade of America bankrupting itself and banging out head into a brick wall trying to find him; we got what we wanted, which was an easy place to pin the blame for a complex problem. Once we started that narrative there was no way to finish it that didn’t involve one party dead.
Well, now Bin Laden’s dead. We’re not really safer, we expended thousands of lives of trillions of dollars and got involved in a ever-thickening knot of problems which have no solution, and we’ve become a nation of paranoid maniacs all too happy to throw away our comfort, privacy, and rights in chasing some forever-lost sense of security.
We didn’t win. But at least it’s over. And it’s over as cleanly and professionally as it could possibly have been, vastly more so than anything we might have dared hope in this messy, sickening fight against a phantom enemy which changes its own form as often as we change it’s meaning.
It’s not a victory. But it’s a relief. And it’s an opportunity for us to really rethink the things which are important to us and the way we’ve reshaped ourselves and our world. This is something which needed to happen, something unavoidable, and, for once, something definite, something concrete. Bin Laden was a loose end which has been neatly and definatively tied. If ever there was a time to turn a corner and try to put this whole mess behind us instead of digging deeper, it was now.
I truly hope we can seize it.