“It’s a complete fate, being an American.” – Henry James
As a student of international affairs, last night’s announcement resonated for me on many levels: it brought closure to a certain degree, but raised many questions as well. As the world has celebrated the death of Osama Bin Laden, I have remained quiet, and skeptical of the joy that comes with the death of one of the world’s most wanted terrorists. What does this mean for democracy? For the fight against terrorism? For the role of America in the international community? I was in sixth grade when the World Trade Center was attacked, and I vividly remember sitting in the living room with my parents and watching the news, but not understanding at all what was going on. I remember hearing the words “terrorist” and “Al Qaeda”, but being completely lost – I was 11, I was still working on basic algebra, so terrorism was far off in the future. I remember seeing images that didn’t quite make sense, but that shocked me and compelled me to understand what had happened. I remember the principal of my school addressing 9/11 as a “transportation problem” rather than admitting that it was an attack on our country (understandably).
In 2001, the United States was still on its plateau of world power. The 1990’s had been an adjustment to our newfound place as a hegemonic power that had been sealed with the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall. We had failed to maintain peace in Somalia, we had stood by and watched Rwanda crumble to pieces, and we had almost allowed the same atrocities to go unpunished in the Balkans. Madeleine Albright helped us recover, convincing President Clinton to intervene in Eastern Europe, thus declaring that America had come of age in its power, and declaring that we would use that power for the good of humanity as we had with Milosevic. However, September 11 was a blow to not only American power, but to its spirit: how could such a strong, indefatigable nation been attacked to such a significant degree? How had we allowed such atrocities to occur on our soil? The great irony of being American is that we so often watch others suffer under ruthless dictators and genocidal regimes – we urge politicians to intervene, or we press them to remain isolationist, or we remain silent – but we can never quite grasp the idea of such tragedies occurring on our own land. The sweet land of liberty? No, that would be inconceivable.
While I do believe that 9/11 was a blow to our hard power (read: economic and military resources), as it commenced a long, difficult, and seemingly futile war, I believe that its true affect has been to our spirit. I think Americans are unique: we are a young nation, and often forget how different of an experience it is to be an American. We forget that our spirit comes from the very fact that we are American, and that we have had to fight for our independence, to defend our liberty, and to constantly recognize our own faults and fix them as needed. 9/11 reminded us that as such a dominant power, and as such a shining symbol of liberty, we are the target of hatred in countries that have longstanding cultural differences at odds with the American philosophy.
However, what is important to understand is that Islam is not our enemy – nor is Saudi Arabia, nor is (was) Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. The fundamentalists that have declared war on our freedom are a small percentage of the Muslim population – Islam is a beautifully complex religion that preaches peace, but like any belief system, there are those who use it to challenge what they deem a threat to that system. It is critical, at this juncture in international relations, to not think of the Middle East or its cultural practices as our enemy. We must respect their culture and their sovereignty, and work with them to come to an understanding of how to ensure the safety of our respective populations in the fight against terrorism.
But how do you fight terrorism? This is the question that strategists have grappled with: how to do fight an ideology? When the enemy is not a country or an army, how do you take them down? Well, it seems we have done a pretty good job. We have successfully brought to justice the world’s most dangerous terrorist.
But what does this mean for America? To me, it is much more of a symbolic victory than a military one. While killing Osama bin Laden means that we have outed an influential leader in the terrorist network, it does not mean the end of the “war on terrorism”. We may be fighting the battle against fundamentalist Islam for years to come, but this death is one that resonates with Americans of all classes, races, genders, orientations, and political beliefs: we all watched as the Twin Towers fell, and now we all have watched as Obama made the announcement that the architect of that tragic day had been killed. We have been brought together once again, this time not in tragedy itself but in the retribution of that tragedy. In a time when our economy has been slow to recover, and we are still deep in an incredibly complex war that seems un-winnable, the justified death of bin Laden is one that has the power to unite our country in spirit once again.
It is also important, however, to recognize the dangers of this act. We are now at a crossroads. We once again may have a target on our back, and we once again may have created an opening for acts of violence against our power. As Osama has been killed, it is inevitable that his second-in-command will step into power, creating an instability in the terrorist network and creating opportunity for attacks that we must be prepared for, in spirit and in arms. I do not question the strength of this country: America is a land of fighters for freedom, of hard-working people who take pride in their identity as an American, and who recognize the power in that pride when it reaches from coast to coast, and crosses from North to South and South to North. I only hope that each American realizes the power of their own identity, the power of the incredibly exceptional country that they make their home in, and the fact that we must never stop fighting to defend her: this is a victory, but it is one that comes with great consequences and great dangers, and we must embrace our power and embrace our strength in this moment.