Terrorist Symbology

I open first with this:

because it is, perhaps, the best thought I’ve seen so far from anyone who isn’t outright happy that Bin Laden is dead. More of what I’ve been seeing is this:

But I’ll get to Jamee’s complaint in just a moment. First, we have to figure out where we are to decide what an appropriate response would be.

Osama Bin Laden

Bin Laden was the face and voice of an organization that wanted to change the world. The US trained him in his craft, and then he went rogue, which was what anyone who’s ever watched a James Bond flick can tell you will happen when you make someone into a weapon. Once weaponized and free of control by the west, with the resources and allies he found in the displaced and disenfranchised of the middle-east, he became their leader.

Bin Laden had a hand in all the events that peaked with 9/11. At that point he became more than a leader, he started to move from leader to symbol, for both sides. They saw him as redeemer, we see him as terrorist. (And as much as it pains me to to ever say anything in terms of “us vs. them” this is true.) After 9/11 what you didn’t hear anymore was anyone who was middle-of-the-road about Bin Laden. He was relegated to the same status we reserve for Hitler, Pol Pot, and the like.

He’d become a symbol.

Which is very odd, because what he wanted to be was a martyr. And symbols and martyrs, while related, are not the same thing. In fact, martyrs are a type of symbol, and generally martyrs, being already dead, cannot die. Had Bin Laden become a martyr we’d never be free of his terror, because he’d become a tenant of his own religion. That’s the last thing we’d want, and a very real problem to consider. How do you kill someone willing to die for his beliefs without making him a martyr? Especially considering his religion, which advocates martyrdom, makes becoming a martyr an extremely easy path. It usually ends with a bang.

The one thing we could have done to make him a martyr would be to give him his day in court. Let him rant, rave and have a mic, have a voice, and let him use his passion and his leadership skills to once again attain a place in the hearts and minds of the people of the middle-east. The moment we did that, we’d have created a beast that we not only couldn’t kill, but that could enflame the wars we currently fight to wind-down to the point that we’re stuck for decades to come.

We managed to avoid that because we let him become a symbol.

Symbols can die

Since Bin Laden had become a symbol of the fight against the U.S. and our allies, we’d managed to do a couple of things. We let people know he was alive, and we harried him enough to keep him relatively quiet and, as far as anyone really knows, out of the loop of al-Qaeda’s leadership. Not completely, but enough that his value diminished, and, while the image of his face was burned into the collective memory of the people of the world, the fact that he couldn’t be heard, but everyone knew he was still out there, alive and breathing, gave enough pause that his symbol started to weaken.

Then, after a decade of wars, and yes, thousands of lives, innocent as well as not, we zeroed in on him and killed him. And people celebrated. And others mourned. But he didn’t become a martyr to his cause. He didn’t die a noble death giving more power and credence to a belief system that is abhorrent and lethal to unbelievers.

So to Jamee, while you think it’s disgusting that people are celebrating his death, you need to know that it wasn’t the person they celebrated, it was the death of the symbol he’d become that they celebrated. His rise and fall as a human being had ended the moment 9/11 happened. At that moment, he became something more for legions of people, and killing him was the only option. Killing him in a way that enshrines him as a martyr would have been a mistake we couldn’t afford, but we had no choice but to kill him. He wouldn’t give us any other choice.

And Mrs. Moltz, yes, you can celebrate his death without losing your humanity because he had already relinquished his own. He wanted to be more than human, he longed for immortality. He wanted to rival Mohammed himself in the annals of muslim history, and for that hubris he is now dead, and can be forgotten, which was almost an impossible task to have accomplished.

Looking forward

Does this mean that we’ve won the war on terror? No, unfortunately, it doesn’t. This was never about one man, at least not on our side. We’ve spent our resources on cleaning up the middle-east, and while I don’t think we’re doing a great job, and there’s tons more to do, and I sometimes wonder if it’s worth it to even try, I remember that 2,975 people died immediately on 9/11 and thousands more have died since to try to fix our world.

Do we have the right to fix our world? Do we do more harm with soldiers in the middle-east than we can ever hope to combat? Is peace possible between peoples who see value in life is such disparate and opposing ways? I don’t have the answers to that. But I know my mythology and history, and we built Osama Bin Ladin into the head of a snake named Al-Qaeda, and then, after letting it feast on it’s children, we beheaded that snake.

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