The killing of Osama bin Laden–”a man who was responsible for numerous acts of mass murder–”should have been the end of a story.
I have no doubt that the essential elements of how he met his death are true: that he was tracked down by intelligence agencies; that with the President’s authorization, a meticulously planned operation was designed; and that after being presented with estimates as to the certainty of the target and prospects for success, the President dispatched a team to the site and in the process of carrying out the plan, bin Laden was killed.
That much, I believe, is clear. The rest is murky and potentially problematic.
First and foremost are the questions that have arisen because of the clumsy way the story was told. Confusion or contradictions regarding "mechanical difficulties", "human shields", "firefights", "burial at sea", etc. have provided grist for the media mills here and in the Arab World. These have created distractions that have allowed the story to play out in ways that reflected the predisposition of the storytellers.
For U.S. conservatives, on television and talk radio programs, for example, the initial telling was best. In their fanciful flights, the coward bin Laden, living in a "multi-million dollar mansion", "hid behind a woman", etc. And they gloated and blustered in delight, some even embellishing the story further, to the delight of their listeners.
There were also those whose concern was heightened by the conflicting facts leading them to ask why the terrorist leader was not simply captured and brought to justice to answer for his many crimes against humanity.
Meanwhile, in the Middle East, some, already distrustful of the U.S., either saw the entire episode as fiction or picked out those parts of the story that fit their bias, using them to construct alternative narratives. In some versions, an unarmed bin Laden was willfully executed; while, in others, he and his band were seen as fighting a pitched battle in which they shot down a helicopter and held off their attackers during a prolonged shoot out. And then there are still others, albeit a minority, who do not believe the story at all, dismissing it as a self-serving fabrication.
There were additional complications presented by the way the military disposed of bin Laden’s corpse. While attempting to adhere to religious requirements so as not to provoke undo concern, the details and justifications provided only served to raise more questions, generating a debate among some Muslim scholars who took issue with the description of the ritual or the very notion of appropriateness of the "burial at sea".
As a result, instead of burying the story with bin Laden, questions continued to be asked on both sides of the divide with demands for more clarification and even calls for release off photographic evidence of bin Laden’s dead body.
None of this, of course, points to any widespread support for bin Laden and his movement, or for the terrorism they utilized that took the lives of thousands of innocents in America, in ten Arab countries, and as many more in Europe, Africa and Asia. Rather what it reveals is the troubling lack of trust that defines perceptions of the U.S. across much of the Arab and Muslim Worlds. And so this clumsy handling of the demise of bin Laden, which was to have provided closure, in the end, only exposed the depth of division and mistrust.
At one point, the President was forced, I believe correctly, to shut the discussion down saying "no more" and insisting that no further explanations or pictures would be forthcoming. I say "correctly" because feeding the questioning media beast with more clarifications would never have sated its hunger, and releasing the pictures would have resolved nothing. Not unlike the "birther" dispute here in the U.S., those inclined toward disbelief would most likely reject the photos anyway (recall how the video of bin Laden boasting about the Twin Towers was dismissed by some as a “Forrest Gump" like concoction). All that release of the photos would accomplish is to provide an iconic image of a bloodied face–”this, like the original story itself, would have been interpreted through the biased lens of the interpreter.
A second and deeply troubling aspect of this entire episode has been the much reported impact it will have on the U.S.- Pakistan relationship and on internal Pakistani politics. Questions are being asked about whether Pakistan knew about bin Laden’s presence in an obviously conspicuous compound located close to one of their military academies; and if they didn’t know, then equally disturbing questions are being asked about the competence of their intelligence capabilities.
It is interesting to note that nearly identical concerns related to these issues are being raised in both the U.S. Congress and the Pakistani Parliament – although for different reasons. Congress wants to know whether or not Pakistan can continue to be trusted as an honest and effective ally deserving of the billions of dollars it receives in U.S. military and economic aid. On the Pakistani side, they want to know whether their military and intelligence services can be trusted to protect the country’s sovereignty from being violated either by the presence of bin Laden or from a U.S. assault. With that country reeling from a long war against the Taliban and other terrorists within their borders and deeply resentful of U.S. drone missile attacks and the recent killing of Pakistanis by a U.S. intelligence official–”this assault against bin Laden has stirred an already simmering pot, placing the once respected Pakistani military establishment in a bind.
How this all plays out in Pakistan and in the U.S. – Pakistan relationship will be critical for stability in that country and for the cross-border conflict in Afghanistan. Further erosion in trust or a breakdown in ties or a cut in much needed aid to a troubled Pakistani economy would make an already bad situation worse.
For his part, the President has handled the moment well. Instead of indulging in unbecoming displays of victory or "Mission Accomplished" celebrations, he has been tempered and thoughtful. While not providing closure, since nothing can, his quiet and respectful appearance at Ground Zero with families of victims and survivors of the 9/11 terrorist attacks was an appropriate and dignified act of remembrance.
What we are left with are the memories of pain and loss of that fateful day, and the knowledge that in the 10 years that have passed we have compounded that horror with two misguided and unfinished wars – that have taken the lives of so many more, and behaviors, at home and abroad, that have tarnished our image and eroded our values.
Given all this, it might have been too much to hope that the end of bin Laden would have brought at least a degree of finality, closing at least one chapter of this still unfolding tragic tale. Sadly, it might have, had the story not been handled so clumsily, raising more questions than it answered.