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The Killing of Osama bin Laden Did Not Stop the Use of Fear to Justify US Wars

“Covering bin Laden” is an exploration of the iconic status of Osama bin Laden achieved through government propaganda.

(Image: University of Illinois Press)

The perspectives collected by Susan Jeffords and Fahed Al-Sumait in Covering bin Laden explore the iconic status Osama bin Laden achieved through global media coverage and government propaganda. Bin Laden became a prism through which the “war on terror” could be viewed and through which the media shaped our understanding of the very idea of terrorism. Click here to order this book now with a contribution to Truthout!

The following book excerpt emphasizes why the killing of Osama bin Laden did not result in an end to the “war on terror”:

Media around the world shared the news of Osama bin Laden’s death on May 2, 2011. His death was largely celebrated as a milestone in the Global War on Terrorism. Former president George W. Bush called bin Laden’s killing a “victory for America”; former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice echoed these sentiments in calling the death a “tremendous victory.” Across the United States, groups broke into celebratory cheers upon hearing the announcement of bin Laden’s death. At the site of the most devastating attack on 9/11—the World Trade Center—crowds waved American flags and burst into choruses of Lee Greenwood’s “I’m Proud to Be an American.” Four thousand tweets per second were sent during Obama’s speech announcing bin Laden’s death, so it is not surprising that the sellout crowd at Citizens Bank Field watching the Phillies-Mets baseball game would have erupted into spontaneous chants of “U-S-A!” without any formal announcement in the stadium. Indeed, Obama’s announcement was preempted by Twitter, with Keith Urbahn, Donald Rumsfeld’s former chief of staff, tweeting five minutes before the president’s speech, “So I’m told by a reputable person that they have killed Osama bin Laden. Hot damn.” Around the world, reactions were similarly positive, though perhaps not as euphoric. European Union Parliament President Jerzy Buzek, said, “We have woken up in a more secure world,” while UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared bin Laden’s death “a watershed moment in our common global fight against terrorism,” continuing that he was “personally, very much relieved by the news that justice has been done to such a mastermind of international terrorism.” Governments in Ethiopia, Liberia, Libya, Kenya, Somalia, Uganda, Chile, Canada, Albania, Philippines, and more declared bin Laden’s death a cause for celebration. Afghanistan president Hamed Karzai noted that bin Laden had been “punished” for his deeds and encouraged members of the Taliban in Pakistan to “learn a lesson” from his death.

Not all reactions were positive. A Taliban commander declared, “the Americans will be happy. .  . . In the Islamic countries Osama is a respected person. I hope Muslims join with us after this killing and stand beside us against the Americans.” Numerous rallies took place in cities across Pakistan to mourn bin Laden’s death and criticize the United States for killing him and violating Pakistan’s sovereignty. A mass prayer and rally was held in Khartoum at which Sunni Muslim clerics declared that “Osama bin Laden is our brother” and voiced a hope that “all Arab presidents will become like Osama bin Laden.” Prayer meetings mourning bin Laden’s death took place around the world, ranging from the Palestinian Territory to London to Egypt to Iran. Rather than lament his passing, Al Qaeda chose to use bin Laden as an example to others, noting, “So if the Americans were able to kill Usama [sic], this is not shame or stigma.” Instead, Al Qaeda reminded its followers that the ideas that bin Laden stood for did not die with him: “But can the Americans, with their media, agents, machinery, soldiers, intelligence and agencies kill that for which Sheikh Usama [sic] lived and that for which he was killed?”

Bin Laden’s death fulfilled the expectations of many Americans that began with President George Bush’s declaration in the days after 9/11: “I want justice. And there’s an old poster out West, I recall, that said: Wanted, Dead or Alive.” He reiterated this sentiment on December 14, 2001, during a press meeting on the occasion of the visit of the prime minister of Thailand to the Oval Office: “I don’t care—dead or alive. It doesn’t matter to me.” In November 2001, a Gallup poll showed that just over half of U.S. citizens believed that the military actions then beginning in Afghanistan would not be a success unless bin Laden was also killed. Indeed, with the Western genre as a common staple of American culture and media, Americans were quite familiar with what statements about taking someone “dead or alive” meant.

As the time between 9/11 and news of bin Laden’s death or capture became longer, and as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq came to dominate the U.S. media’s reporting of the Global War on Terror, less attention was given to bin Laden himself. On the fifth anniversary of 9/11, Bush reminded Americans that “Osama bin Laden and other terrorists are still in hiding. Our message to them is clear: No matter how long it takes, America will find you, and we will bring you to justice.” But in the months after 9/11, Bush began to reframe his statements about bin Laden’s death. In a press conference in March 2002, he acknowledged: “We haven’t heard much from him. And I wouldn’t necessarily say he’s at the center of any command structure. And, again, I don’t know where he is. . . . I’ll repeat what I said. I truly am not that concerned about him. I know he is on the run.”

With the news of bin Laden’s death came questions about the impact of the long-awaited announcement about the discovery of “the most wanted man on earth.” The debate is a polarized one. While initial reactions in Western media were positive, Gary Younge of the Guardian noted on the first anniversary of bin Laden’s death: “beyond avenging the attacks on the world trade centre, the assassination of Bin Laden has achieved precious little. Assassination is not a foreign policy. Nor is it a judicial strategy. Vengeance, however righteous, is not an argument, let alone a plan. The two wars, ostensibly launched in response to September 11, 2001, have been disasters, leaving many more civilians dead than the original act of terror. America’s standing around the world has yet to fully recover. The geopolitical relations in the area around Afghanistan and Pakistan remain fragile.”

In contrast, Lieutenant Colonel Joe Ruffini (retired), author of Osama bin Laden: His Death and the Future of Al Qaeda and the Islamist Jihad, argues that there are several clear impacts of bin Laden’s death:

• Intelligence materials gathered in bin Laden’s compound by the SEAL Team that killed him
• “Closure” for the American people
• A message to other terrorist groups about American resolve to seek out and address terrorists who have attacked or wish to attack the United States: “Bin Laden’s death is all about American pride and honor. It is about national resolve. It is about showing the world and especially our adversaries that harming our nation and its citizens will not be tolerated.”

Why does it seem to many that bin Laden’s death did not have the impact that was expected from the largest and most expensive manhunt in history? Mark Hughes, writing for Forbes, points to an explanation: “All of that tension and aggression, all of that killing and warfare, all of those revelations about the United States engaging in torture and secret prisons and rejection of international law and Geneva Conventions, it was all supposed to be building to this moment. Bin Laden’s death was supposed to be worth all of it, the justification for what had come before, and in his death the nation had expected some resolution and fulfillment. And upon the initial reporting of his death, indeed there were crowds cheering in the street and proclamations that at long last the victims of terrorism had been avenged and the survivors could sleep easier.” But then, Hughes goes on to say, “the next morning, bin Laden was gone but the rest was still here. The war was still here, the torture and Geneva Convention were still here, and the sense that there was never going to be a definitive end to any of it was still here.”

The full footnoted version can be found in Covering bin Laden: Global Media and the World’s Most Wanted Man.

Copyright (2015) by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the University of Illinois Press.

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