So we finally killed him. This is a good thing; he was a bad person and definitely deserved to die. However, after hearing news of his death I felt…not unhappy, but unsatisfied. I had reasonable expectations, I think, I wasn’t planning for the world to suddenly sprout puppies and rainbows when he breathed his last, but I just couldn’t get into the same feeling as all those cheering in front of the White House.
I think it’s because in my mind it’s because we never beat him. I know this sounds odd, but please hear me out. Bin Laden was a terrorist, and a decent strategist, but he wasn’t a supervillain or mastermind. His plan was clear, simple, and very well-done given our reaction. Al-Qaeda performs a major strike on our (at the time, and maybe still now) poorly-defended infrastructure. This sets the US into high alert, and we chase after him into Afghanistan, AKA “The Graveyard of Empires” AKA “The Land that Kicked the Last Two Superpower’s Asses so hard they never recovered”. Russia invaded and failed, Britain invaded and failed, and we tromped in there like we had learned nothing. Using the Northern Alliance and drones as combat proxies were some very smooth tricks, though. Credit where credit is due.
We did pretty well, but Afghanistan is still a quagmire. Every time we accidentally kill a civilian (or 32 ) we give previously neutral civilians the resentment they need to become terrorists. We get stuck in a feedback loop where when we kill bad guys, it makes more bad guys, and to put it bluntly bullets cost money. Al-Qaeda had us charging about like a bull in a china shop in Afghanistan and Iraq, and like a very secretive bull in a china shop in places like Pakistan, Iran, and Jordan. Insurgents, being locals who know the land, and look just like the civies we’re supposed to protect, can pop out with pinprick attacks and then go to ground. We’ll certainly kill them eventually, but they do a lot of monetary damage and waste our time. We exhaust ourselves financially and militarily chasing shadows and killing terrorist after terrorist while they seem inexhaustible.
Any boxing fans out there? Then you’re probably already thinking this sounds like rope-a-dope. Good catch. Osama knew that you don’t beat a superpower by bombing its cities, you beat it by bankrupting it (after all, that was Reagan’s successful strategy to beat the USSR, and India’s versus Britain). To quote Hobbes (friend of Calvin, not political philosopher) “The first [snowball] was to make you turn around.” Bin Laden’s tactics were to drag us into costly wars and chase after him. He was a sick old man who needed kidney dialysis; he was going to be dead soon anyways. As long as he lived, however, he could make us exhaust ourselves chasing after him, make us clamp down on civil liberties at home, push away our allies in the international community, and cause collateral damage which led to fresh new crops of terrorists.
This problem is aggravated by the fact that most terrorist organizations are heavily decentralized. Remember how often we killed Al-Qaeda’s Number 3? And how it seemed to never actually have an effect? Well, control of Al-Qaeda has now passed to their Number 3. We got their mascot, and I would like to give kudos to Obama and our DoD teams who were willing to wait so we could get a body and not make him an ambiguously dead folk hero. But we’re still stuck in the trap he set for us and I’m not seeing much movement towards extricating ourselves from it.
I think this is why I’m unsatisfied. As long as he was alive, I could imagine us changing tactics and beating him. I always secretly hoped one day we’d wake up and go “Oh, wow, I can’t believe we fell for it! We’re withdrawing our land armies and sending in specialist teams with lots of local connections and intel to selectively target known leaders and threats. Then we’re going to perform studies to determine what practices actually are useful in stopping terrorist threats rather than engaging in security kabuki and infringing on people’s rights.” Now that he’s dead, we’ll never get the satisfaction of beating him, and have to settle for mounting his corpse as a trophy or something.
He’s dead and I hope he rots in the worst hell I can imagine, but I can’t help feeling like he was laughing at us as he died.