Hard News by Russell Brown


For the kids, if nothing else

‪My younger son was five years old when the awful attack on the World Trade Centre towers was conducted in September 2001. I doubt he recalls that at all, but he needed no explanation of the significance of the moment when I came in yesterday and suggested we switch the TV to a news channel -- because President Obama was about to announce that they'd killed Bin Laden.

He had never really known a world without Osama Bin Laden as a fugitive, a possibly mythical bad guy and a figure in popular culture. Now, he was real and he was gone. He knew that was news.

Much the same was true of the students who rushed from their campuses to the White House as the news broke. We might find the noisy celebration of a killing distasteful, and most of us outside America cringe when we hear that "USA! USA!" chant at the best of times. But these are kids who have lived in a country under heavy manners for half their lives.

Many probably couldn't recall using an airport without the sense of dread engendered by the post-911 security response, or living in a country that wasn't at war with a noun. Regardless of how much anything has really changed, they were entitled to feel that some sort of weight had been lifted, and to celebrate that.

The reaction of their counterparts in the Middle East, Persia and North Asia was more striking. The Twitter accounts of pro-democracy activists, people I'd forgotten I'd followed, lit up yesterday. And they were not full of misgivings about extrajudicial action, or calculations about what it might or might not mean. They seemed to see the symbolism of the death for what it was. They celebrated.

As The Guardian's Middle East editor, Ian Black, points out, al Qaeda's vision had already been rendered irrelevant by the real and continuing events of the Arab Spring. The young people who filled Tahrir Square had no use for Bin Laden's caliphate. It wasn't going to bring them anything they needed. The would-be revolutionary jihadis -- whose recruitment had long focused on the young and educated -- saw the revolution take place without them.

In no sense has the killing of the old man ended jihadism. It may well trigger a new wave of attacks. But it would be wrong to suppose that nothing has changed -- if only because they have already been changing. Pew Research surveys say the stocks of both Bin Laden and al Qaeda have fallen dramatically amongst "Muslim publics" over the years -- most notably in Turkey and Lebanon, which support for either is virtually nil. In Jordan, confidence in Bin Laden fell from 56% in 2003 to 13% this year. Amongst Indonesian Muslims, it dropped from 59% to 26%.

Another Pew survey underlines enthusiasm for political and economic progress in Egypt, but suggests that perceptions of the US and its leadership still have a long way to recover from the pits of the past 10 years.

What can change? Sadly, Guantanamo Bay is almost the least tractable of the problems. The die was cast when detainees were tortured: justice has been tainted, and the cursed prison contains men who can be neither tried or safely released. Claims that Bin Laden was finally located through information extracted under torture from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed pose a moral dilemma that must eventually be answered by affirming that a civilised nation does not torture. A withdrawal from Afghanistan seems more possible, although it's hard to even think about how a final accounting of what was done there and in Iraq might look.

But what can be done is something about the things that Jolisa described so beautifully in her post today:

That’s where my stumbling, inarticulate grief is coming from this morning. It’s been ten years of bullying from the top. Ten years of official policy increasingly designed to squash that generous, democratic, mutually supportive impulse. A decade of ever-increasing paranoia and withdrawal and pain, in the place of that first gathering of light and voice and hope. A decade of collective emotional shuttering, political atrophy, an agreement not to talk about it.

If the taking out of the super-villain is indeed largely symbolic, then these are things that may be amenable to symbolism.

It should help that the often-pilloried President of the USA came out of this with his undemonstrative manner looking like a virtue. Both left and right have, as Americans seem to, demanded that their man be an action hero. But knowing that Obama gave the word and then went on to deliver his cool, relaxed performance at the White House correspondents' dinner … the man has icewater in his veins.

If the death of a religious fascist -- and is what Bin Laden was -- can merely temper the madness that American politics has inflicted on America and on the rest of us and our own laws, then that seems worth reaching for. It would be nice to think there was a moment here. For the kids, if nothing else.

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