And the War Goes On, and On, and On

As was predictable, the death of Osama bin Laden doesn’t mean the war on terrorism is over. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stresses that al-Qaeda’s message “might have even greater resonance” now that bin Laden is dead.

No one should be surprised that the war will continue. The mission creep in Libya, for example, foreshadowed this.

But there is irony to behold, given that Obama, to great liberal fanfare, announced the end of the war on terrorism in August 2009. Then, in case people forgot, Obama declared the end of the war on terror once again in May 2010.

Of course, this would have seemed odd to those who followed the news. For Bush had ended the “global war on terror” back in the summer of 2005. See Bob Higgs’s insightful comments about that marketing ploy.

It can easily be countered, however, that none of these developments meant the actual tangle of policies together described as the “war on terrorism” would come to an end—nor that the very approach of U.S. foreign policy post 9-11 being conducted as a crusade directed against the abstraction of “terrorism” rather than a more definitive enemy was meant to be reversed. Not in 2005, 2009, nor 2010 did the Bush or Obama administrations actually mean there would be an end to the U.S. government’s preventative wars, its occupations, its counterinsurgencies, its drive toward greater hegemony in the Middle East, its claims to have executive jurisdiction, tempered by neither international law nor domestic checks and balances, over every last one of the planet’s inhabitants on every square foot of land and sea. And, presumably, now that Osama bin Laden—whose activities supposedly justified the U.S. policy of perpetual war for the last decade—is gone, it would be unreasonable to expect that would mean such a policy should cease.

When will the policy end? Perhaps when all “terrorists” everywhere are vanquished. Even then, the job will not be done. Three days after 9/11, Bush said the U.S. must “rid the world of evil.” Thus is the U.S. war on terrorism—whatever we call it—a quest far more ambitious than the war on poverty, the war on drugs, the war on illiteracy and the war on recession combined. For thousands of years, all the clerics, all the governments, all the social activists and all the philosophers have struggled even to define evil precisely. Almost none has claimed the capacity to eliminate it altogether. This was the cornerstone of Bush’s humble foreign policy: the mere vanquishing of all evil. And although Obama would probably hesitate to use such hyperbolic language, there appears little sign of any actual shift in foreign policy since he took office.

Now we know for a fact that the war on terrorism is not just about finding bin Laden, although neither Bush nor Obama ever really implied that it was. However, in Obama’s speech last night, he focused on the one act of violence against Americans that united about ninety percent of the population behind the government ten years ago, and continues to bring life in people’s minds to the “evil” that our government is supposedly out to destroy:

It was nearly 10 years ago that a bright September day was darkened by the worst attack on the American people in our history. The images of 9/11 are seared into our national memory—hijacked planes cutting through a cloudless September sky; the Twin Towers collapsing to the ground; black smoke billowing up from the Pentagon; the wreckage of Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where the actions of heroic citizens saved even more heartbreak and destruction.

And yet we know that the worst images are those that were unseen to the world. The empty seat at the dinner table. Children who were forced to grow up without their mother or their father. Parents who would never know the feeling of their child’s embrace. Nearly 3,000 citizens taken from us, leaving a gaping hole in our hearts.

This is no mere abstract discussion of evil. It is as concrete as it gets. We are talking about a delineated, specific atrocity—9/11—whose principal perpetrator, as we have been told for a decade, was Osama bin Laden, a man that we are told is now dead. The war on terror is about 9/11, for without the memory of this specific event there is no rationale for the wars, the invasions of our personal liberty, the mass bloodshed and huge expenditure of resources. And yet, paradoxically, the war on terror is not just about avenging the deaths of 9/11, or bringing to justice the man behind it. No, it is about fighting extremists who, as Clinton says, may be emboldened by the very act of killing bin Laden.

Perhaps this is true, and perhaps it could be argued that this alone does not negate the justice of killing bin Laden. But what of the many others who were killed since 9/11? The many, many thousands directly slaughtered by U.S. bombs in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and elsewhere? The many children who were killed? One would think that this, too, might embolden the enemy, and because they, unlike bin Laden, did not have any justice coming to them, we might wonder if the war on terrorism is a policy that, by circumstance if not by deliberate design, cannot help but increase the threat of terrorism far more than it does anything to subdue it.

This raises other uncomfortable questions about U.S. foreign policy. Lost in today’s jubilation is the issue: Why did bin Laden’s goons attack Americans in the first place? Clinton gives a hint. They are actually motivated by what the U.S. does to people abroad. But killing bin Laden, one would logically assume, is no less controversial than, say, killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children through sanctions, propping up an apostate regime in Saudi Arabia, or financing Israel’s scandalous policies of expansion and occupation. You might find these three policies defensible, but they are certainly no more defensible than the killing of Osama bin Laden himself, an event our Secretary of State says might make the terrorist problem worse. Is it so strange to think that the killing of innocent Muslims might also make the terrorist problem worse?

Now that Osama bin Laden is dead, the U.S. has less excuse than ever to continue warring against terrorism. But we are offered no sign that the warring will subside. At least when Osama was said to be on the lam, there was hope that his capture would mean and end to the madness. At this juncture, no such hope can be found.

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