Before and After Bin Laden

For most Americans the pre-dawn assassination of Osama Bin Laden is the closing chapter of a traumatic decade that started on that fateful Tuesday morning of September 11th. The attacks on World Trade Center and the Pentagon were said to herald a new age defined by the ‘war on terror” (a vague term at best and oxymoron at worst), pre-emptive war, suicide bombings, drone missile attacks, and legalization of torture. A stream of news anchors, talk show hosts and politicians made sure that we knew we were living in a new era by referring to 9/11 as “The day the world changed”. Sometimes it felt as if all of history could be divided as before and after 9/11. Indeed that was the state of American collective memory in the run up to the wars. Billions of dollars were spent to bomb and occupy Afghanistan; one of the poorest and war ravaged places in the world to capture Bin Laden, a former cold war asset. In the end Bin Laden was nowhere to be found, (after all he was taking refuge in the relative comfort of Abbotabad). As the hunt for Bin Laden, and Taliban leadership grew cold there were other justification offered for the war, Afghanistan had to occupied in order to save it from extremists, it had to be occupied in order to save Afghani women from the extremist Taleban, and now Afghanistan has to be bombed in order to end the war. An entire region was punished for the actions of a few militants. History didn’t seem to matter nor did the fact that the most wanted terrorists were former allies. All that was before 9/11. As Donald Rumsfeld, the chatty former Secretary of Defense put it best himself when he stated that there are “known knowns and then there are known un-knowns”.

After Afghanistan, the American war machine zeroed in on Iraq as neo-conservatives spooked the already frightened public by blanketing the airwaves about the existence of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction program. There were large protests and deep anxieties about this war but the space for critique closed down as the war got going. Shock and awe the two basic elements of terror were the opening salvo of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The American tilt to war pushed Jihad from a fringe topic that had little precedence in modern times to a transnational form of resistance that attracted the outraged youth. The devastation in Afghanistan and Iraq magnified Bin Laden’s stature from a marginal figure in the Muslim world to a spokesman of the oppressed Ummah. All of this was possible by sacralizing 9/11 as an event outside of history by narrating the attacks to define good and evil in contemporary America.

However, for most people in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq, the attacks on World Trade center were not a beginning, or an end but just another chapter of violence that goes back to the last decade of cold war. The crucial difference now was that the attacks happened in the heart of the empire, whereas cold war battles were mostly fought by Black and Brown people in the global South. Bin Laden or for that matter Saddam Hussein were both creatures of late cold war alliances when American policy makers saw them as assets to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, or Iran after the Islamic Revolution. One can find photographs of a smiling Rumsfeld locked in a handshake with Saddam Hussein (at a time when Saddam was known to use chemical weapons), or Osama Bin Laden boasting about the help he received from Americans in the Jihad in his speeches and interviews. Overall, these facts don’t seem to matter because they are relegated to the pre-history as before 9/11. For years anti-war activists held on to the belief that only if people knew the facts then they would rise up against American imperial policies but this faith in reason overlooked the basic desire to sacralize 9/11 and to maintain a noble self image.

Domestically, the specter of Bin Laden had an enormous impact on America. The hard fought civil rights protections that were gained after decades of struggle were rolled back overnight as racial profiling became justified. Muslim-Americans, immigrants, and people of color became subjects of suspicion. In the days and weeks after 9/11 Shopkeepers were detained for carrying box-cutters, tourists were detained for taking photographs, restaurant workers were arrested when neighbors grew suspicious of people getting in and out of mini-van. All it took was a gesture, a scarf, a beard or innocuous garb to arouse suspicion and for authorities to ask for legal papers. The fear that gripped America was as much the work of Al-Qaeda as it was the doing of Homeland Security. The multi-billion dollar agency that was created to provide protection and gather intelligence issued fluctuating color coded terror alerts, confusing guidelines on what to watch out for and a culture of surveillance. We saw how ‘homeland security’ can blur into terror as it anticipates another attack or mimics similar techniques. In this past decade US moved away from International laws concerning rules of war and the treatment of political prisoners were put on hold as American intelligence agencies sanctioned torture (enhanced interrogation) of “enemy combatants’ who in most cases were completely innocent men caught and sold to the US. The iconic images of Abu Ghraib Prisoners will remain one of the most horrifying testimonials of the the thin line between security and terror, when they become one and the same.

It didn’t have to be this way and indeed in the days and weeks after the 9/11 attacks there was great introspection and reflection when Americans started paying attention to the world in a new way: “why did this happen? why do they hate us? what is happening in Palestine/Israel? Why were so many of the attackers from Saudi Arabia and Egypt? Is war the solution to violence?” These questions betray a sense of bewilderment and disconnect that defined American attitude to the non-western world in days before 9/11. But now there was a great desire to learn more about the Muslims, Middle East, and the conflicts that have engulfed Southwest Asia. The space for reflection and inquiry closed fast as the war drums were beaten on CNN and Fox as America went to war. We were told that the enemy was Bin Laden, Taliban and yes it had to do something with Islam. That was that and there was no room to reflect on the trail of destruction that created the conditions for an Al-Qaeda or Taleban to form, or the fact that Americans were now chasing the ghosts of cold war battles in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. Radicalism also proliferates in countries that have to endure the despotic of authoritarian leaders like Saddam Hussein, the Saudi royal family or unaccountable institutions like the Pakistan Army.

In this moment of jubilation in America there is little desire to face up to the reality that the trail of destruction that made it possible for Al Qaeda and Bin Laden to emerge has only expanded. In fact with tens of thousands killed in Afghanistan, Iraq and the destabilization of Pakistan it seems that the specter of Bin Laden and American foreign policy will haunt us for a long time to come.

Washington justifies its narrow foreign policy in the name of national interest. It paints a picture of the world where only Americans and Europeans are fond of peace, democracy and freedom. Its all too complicated for rest of the world, the Muslim world still falls in a mysterious void where ‘experts’ are brought in to extract meaning and shape to acts of brutality and violence. There is no sense of history, and no accountability. The nihilistic war culture of violence and terror personified by Bin Laden will continue as long as America pursues short term policies that put price of oil over and above human rights. The popularity of Al-Qaeda and the myth of Bin Laden crystallized in the moment when ordinary people felt they had little power over their own destiny. Recently Bin Laden’s vision of puritanical state has greatly weakened by the proliferation of democratic protests but these gains are still tenuous and vulnerable to counter-revolutions. The revolutions in Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia have shown a deep desire for more open and democratic future in the Muslim world but here again America’s narrow understanding of national security does not allow it to fully support these movements and I fear that in short time a more favorable client leader will emerge. Things might change but they stay the same, case in point is the current discrepancy in the NATO’s support for the insurgency in Libya while keeping all eyes shut to the brutal repression, arrests in Bahrain where doctors have been tortured for coming to aid of protesters, students and human rights activists have been killed and now Shi’a mosques are to be razed to the ground. One will be hard pressed to find reports in Bahrain in America or the fact that Saudi Arabia has sent in its Army to help aid the repression. While the world might forget Bahrain, those on the grounds will always remember that the bullets, the tanks and the ammunition used by Bahraini police, and Saudi soldiers were made in America. So it goes on

Pakistan is a revealing case in that it has been witness to mass mobilization in every decade yet every change in government has closely followed the powerful interests of the national elite and American establishment at a huge cost to the vast majority of its own population. The chaos and confusion created by wars, American foreign policy, the Pakistan Army’s coups have created an environment where conspiracies carry more weight than facts, where an entire population is squeezed dry to pay for an Army that plays a duplicitous games with its own people and the world.

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