Osama Bin Laden and the Politics of Justice

May 11, 2011

By Ren LaForme, Political Columnist – May 11, 2011

The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 forever changed the political landscape in the United States. From a late-’90s era of prosperity and safety emerged a new period of fear, anger and racism perpetuated against Muslims. The Patriot Act was passed into law, which – whether one agrees the additional protections are necessary or not – denies Constitutional rights to Americans who are deemed “suspicious.” And nobody can forget the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have resulted in the deaths of over 6,000 American soldiers. [1]

President Obama places a wreath at the site of the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero, White House Photo, Pete Souza, 5/5/11

President Obama places a wreath at the site of the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero, White House Photo, Pete Souza, 5/5/11

But such large-scale changes in the political climate are not always the result of massive explosions in the sky.

On May 2, 2011, 25 U.S. Navy Seals landed two helicopters at a million-dollar mansion surrounded by 12-foot-tall walls in Abbottabad, Pakistan. [2] The Seals engaged in a firefight with several inhabitants of the mansion, and in the ensuing chaos shot and killed Osama bin Laden – the man who claimed responsibility for the 9/11 attacks in a video three years after they occurred. [3]

Several hours later, U.S. President Barack Obama gave a late-night speech to announce that the country’s No. 1 most wanted criminal had been killed.

“Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda, and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women and children,” he said, in speech that remained calm and unemotional. [4]

The rest of the country did not maintain the same emotions, as thousands of Americans took to the streets outside of the White House and at the World Trade Center site. They held signs and sang songs about America. Twitter, which has quickly become an easy way to measure the strength of any particular event, exploded with 4,000 tweets per second about bin Laden’s death. [5]

That night, the U.S. celebrated as though the era of terrorism and fear from the last decade had ended, and a new one was about to begin. Many claimed that bin Laden’s death was a turning point toward a new political landscape in the U.S., much like 9/11 had been before it. Were they right?

Barack Obama campaigned on the fact that he was going to pull troops out of Iraq, a widely popular move that may have won him the election. Now, a week after bin Laden’s death, 59 percent of Americans think that the U.S. has accomplished its mission and it is time to leave Afghanistan. [6] Only one third of Americans believe that the U.S. should maintain troops there. With such widespread opinions, it is likely that the U.S. will choose to soon pull forces from the embattled nation for the first time in almost a decade.

News reports after bin Laden’s death claimed that he had “resisted” U.S. forces as they entered the compound, implying that he was armed, and said that he used one of his wives as a human shield to protect himself during the assault. [7] The U.S. government refuted these claims several days later, admitting that bin Laden was not armed and had not used his wife as a shield. [8]

This announcement seems to be a clear departure from the previous U.S. policies of secrecy, misappropriation of facts or outright denial in instances that might otherwise provoke negative international and domestic responses.

During the July 12, 2007 airstrikes in Baghdad, for example, several civilian Iraqis and two journalists were killed along with several insurgents. Military spokesmen claimed that they “took great pains to prevent the loss of innocent civilian lives” shortly after the incident took place. [9] However, video footage that was leaked to Wikileaks several years after the incident and released on a YouTube video known as “Collateral Murder” showed otherwise, as U.S. Apache helicopters were seen firing on large groups of people and a van that had been driving toward the scene. Two children were in the van; one was injured and the other was killed.

Whether Wikileaks’ persistence in giving the government a black eye had any influence on its decision to release the information about bin Laden is unclear, but hearing the truth shortly after it happened is a refreshing change of policy.

Other signs point to no new changes in U.S. policy.

The Navy Seals that raided bin Laden’s compound recovered plans and videotapes suspected to contain information about future terrorist attacks. One such plan would have shut down all rail transportation on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Al Qaeda had reportedly planned to perform a large-scale attack on the American railroad system, which is hard to protect due to the sheer amount of space that it covers. [10]

In the wake of this discovery, U.S. intelligence officials are contemplating a “no-ride list,” similar to the no-fly list already in place on airlines. [11] They have also considered beefing up Transportation Security Administration presence in railroad stations, even though the TSA has become widely notorious from its use of naked body scanners and enhanced pat-downs. One poll recently showed that the TSA has become as unpopular as the IRS. [12] In any case, the addition of new and invasive security measures to train stations is a sign that bin Laden’s death has had little, if any, effect on America’s psyche.

Bin Laden’s death so far does not seem to have made as obvious an impact on the U.S. political system as the 9/11 attacks, which spurred immediate and strong responses. Besides boosting Obama’s re-election chances, which went up between seven and 12 points according to one Denver Post poll, the government has showed no major signs that it plans to change directions. [13] While bin Laden’s death may itself mark no immediate shifts in policy, it does provide a lens through which the observer can see that obvious changes are taking place: Wikileaks has showed its impact on the American political landscape, and support for an already unpopular war is draining further.

It seems that some things that Osama bin Laden changed in the U.S. will not be changing back after his death.


[1] http://icasualties.org/

[2] http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/osama-bin-laden-killed-navy-seals-firefight/story?id=13505792

[3] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/08/27/AR2006082700687.html

[4] http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-20058783-503544.html

[5] http://www.geek.com/articles/gadgets/obamas-bin-laden-speech-triggers-4000-tweets-per-second-2011052/

[6] http://thinkprogress.org/2011/05/11/afghanistan-get-out-59-percent/

[7] http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2011/may/2/us-osama-used-wife-human-shield/

[8] http://news.theage.com.au/breaking-news-world/osama-unarmed-when-shot-dead-us-admits-20110504-1e71d.html

[9] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/07/12/AR2007071202357.html

[10] http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704810504576307470905866438.html

[11] http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/2011/0509/Bin-Laden-fallout-Do-US-trains-need-a-no-ride-list

[12] http://boingboing.net/2007/12/23/tsa-is-as-unpopular.html

[13] http://www.denverpost.com/nationworld/ci_18023439

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