On May 1st 2003, former President George W. Bush trotted out onto the deck of an aircraft carrier, stood under a Mission Accomplished banner and declared victory in the War on Terror. On May 1st, 2011, current President Barack Obama strolled out to a podium in the East Room of the White House and announced to the world that Osama bin Laden was dead. Or he would have announced it to the world if the major news networks and Twitter hadn’t beaten him to it.
Obama was expected to make an announcement at 11 pm on May 1st. The topic of the announcement was not immediately revealed, which did not stop the major news networks from spending an hour talking about why Obama was giving a secretive press conference. About an hour before the President made his appearance (half an hour late) the major news networks and print newspapers announced that Obama was going to declare that Osama bin Laden was dead. Predictably, CNN and Fox News took this opportunity to turn a serious political event into a media circus. Before the President’s speech, CNN dedicated thirty minutes to having various interviewees repeat the news, intercut with footage of cheering crowds outside the White House.
Twitter, in classic fashion, rose to the occasion by creating multiple fake bin Laden accounts and turning the death of perhaps the most sought-after man in Pakistan into somewhat of a joke. Bin Laden was declared “World Hide and Go Seek Champion, 2001-2011” by various tweeters, and others suggested that Donald Trump would make finding bin Laden’s death certificate his next crusade.
Bin Laden has been the major target of the United States military since the September 11th attacks on New York, Washington D.C., and Pennsylvania. The Bush administration used tracking down bin Laden as early the rationale for bombing campaigns in the Middle East. Much heavy criticism of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq stemmed from the fact that the mission was perceived to have veered away from its original mission. Bin Laden’s name came up less and less in political conversation, despite the fact that he sent periodic video messages from “undisclosed locations” encouraging his followers to continue their fight against America’s evils.
When President Obama was elected, he made it his goal to re-focus American military operations on finding and detaining (or killing) bin Laden. Obama’s press conference confirmed that he had made finding bin Laden a top priority from day one. According to the President, a team was put together in August with the mission of finding bin Laden. The terrorist kingpin was killed May 1st in Abbottabad, Pakistan after a firefight in which no US service members were injured.
The immediate reaction of many Americans was joy – cable news channels showed footage of crowds gathered outside the White House singing the national anthem and chanting “USA! USA!” This reaction is understandable, especially in a city that was targeted by the 9/11 attacks. A crowd gathered at BU’s Marsh Plaza, and then marched into the city center. After ten years of waiting, Americans can finally feel some sense of closure about the trauma and loss of that day.
However, as with everything in life, bin Laden’s death is not as simple as declaring victory. Obama, unlike his predecessor, was careful to reiterate that this was not an end to the War on Terror or the struggle against Al Qaeda. As he concluded his speech, Obama said “the cause of securing our country is not complete.”
Despite the best efforts of the American military, Al Qaeda is far from a shadow organization. Bin Laden was reportedly terminally ill with kidney failure for several years, so it is likely that Al Qaeda has had a plan in place for his passing. Without bin Laden in charge, it is important that the world community make the new leaders of Al Qaeda targets of their intelligence agencies. These new leaders are likely to have been formed in bin Laden’s model, and will still be dangerous individuals with a dangerous organization under their control.
As relieving and cathartic as it may be for Americans to finally see bin Laden dead, it is important to remember that this event raises more questions than it answers. Who will take over the huge terrorist organization that is Al Qaeda? Will there be significant changes to the organization? And, of course, at the risk of fear mongering, will there be retaliation?