The caption on the front page of Monday's New York Times said that bin Laden had "waged a terror war against the United States". But it must also be remembered that al-Qaida spawned a range of regional affiliates that have slaughtered many across Africa, Asia and the Middle East. (map credit)
I think of my wonderful childhood neighbour in Algeria, who consulted for the UN development programme and was murdered by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, along with 33 others, in its 11 December 2007 suicide bombings of UN headquarters and the constitutional court in Algiers. In fact, a 2009 study of Arabic media sources (pdf) by the Combating Terrorism Centre at West Point found that only 15% of all of the casualties of al-Qaida between 2004 and 2008 were westerners. Between 2006-2008, the most recent period the study examined, fully 98% of al-Qaida's victims were inhabitants of Muslim majority countries. (IntLawGrrl Diane Marie Amann also discussed these data in her post on bin Laden's death; Beth Van Schaack's legal analysis is here.)
Let it not be forgotten that Osama bin Laden was not just a nemesis of the US, but with his advocacy of mass murder and extreme repression, was an enemy of all humankind – hostis humani generis. This framing is critical both for dignitarian reasons – recognising the equal humanity of all of his many victims, and commemorating them all – but also for practical reasons. If he is remembered only as an enemy of the United States of America, as someone whose death is simply a vindication of US patriotism, this narrative obscures the terrible harm he did to the very Muslims he falsely claimed to be defending. This point is critical in shaping public opinion in the societies and populations where al-Qaida and its splinter groups have sought recruits, safe haven, financing and sympathy (or at least tolerance).
The Arab Spring (subject of a series of posts by me and other IntLawGrrls) has shown the political irrelevance of al-Qaida as a force for real change in the region. This is a moment to consolidate that view – by also emphasising bin Laden's regional crimes, rather than describing him solely as the west's enemy-in-chief.
Americans might also want to think carefully about how our reactions will be read elsewhere. On Sunday night, tourists waved flags in front of the White House chanting "U-S-A, U-S-A", with college kids in shorts and sweatshirts throwing a patriotic pep rally. Students were actually bouncing around a beach ball on Pennsylvania Avenue. People were shown on TV singing, "Na, Na, Na, Na, Hey, Hey, Hey, good bye." This was not the somber candlelight vigil for the victims of al-Qaida attacks that one might have expected. And, of course, Monday's Daily News bore the much-discussed headline: "Rot in Hell."
I visited Ground Zero Monday afternoon and found a wide range of responses. A scraggly man in a jean jacket bearing a "Tea Party Patriot" patch, and the statement "No Mosque at Ground Zero", wandered around proclaiming: "The cockroach is dead," and, more ominously: "Kill all the cockroaches." There were also two young peace activists holding signs that said, "I celebrate life not death," and "Any man's death diminishes me." Teary visitors next to me wove the picture of a blond woman friend lost on 11 September 2001 into the wire fencing around the site. (credit for file photo of site on which New York's World Trade Center once stood)
Yes, the picture of the Statue of Liberty holding the bleeding severed head of Bin Laden, a sad desecration of our most beautiful national monument, was taped up on a wall. And resourceful merchants were already selling American flag hats, and T-shirts bearing Bin Laden's picture and the slogan: "DEAD: Mission Accomplished." But nearby hung a picture of the flag of honour bearing all the names of those who died in the terror attacks, its simple text speaking eloquently to the diverse tapestry of human loss that awful day: "Mario Nardone, Jose Nunez, Yoicho Sugiyama, Mohamed Shajahan, Amy O'Doherty."
Of course, this moment must be profoundly moving for those who lost loved ones on 9/11, for those who witnessed and survived the attacks, for the first responders who sought to save victims from the rubble and paid a terrible price – like the firefighter on CNN last night who had to retire due to lung ailments caused by working at Ground Zero. Their strong reactions are understandable, and it is not for me to tell victims how to express their feelings now. Without a doubt, it is very positive that bin Laden is no longer able to perpetrate his crimes against humanity.
But perhaps this occasion might be better marked by our society as a whole with an increased sense of gravitas, and with heightened thoughtfulness about how our behaviour could affect other societies that have lost thousands to fundamentalist terrorism in recent years – such as Pakistan. Undoubtedly, the terrible crimes Osama bin Laden committed and openly incited against many Americans, including victims of 9/11, should be respectfully memorialised today. But we must not forget his all-too-numerous other victims. And in Muslim majority societies, the struggle against the forces of jihadism and fundamentalism will continue long after bin Laden's death. This is a critical struggle – both for local human rights and global security – that can be helped or hindered by how we define this moment.
(Cross-posted at The Guardian)