The big story was that they got him, not that he was stopped. Osama bin Laden was already stopped.
Sure, the al-Qaida movement could still massacre Christians at a Baghdad church and try to put package bombs on cargo planes headed for the United States. But bin Laden’s plan for a restored Islamic superstate enforcing a puritanical Islam had sunk into irrelevance for the very people the terrorist sought to inspire.
We killed him. They stopped him.
Bin Laden was last century’s news in an Arab world whose young people were concluding that modern democracy, rather than a medieval caliphate enforcing puritanical Islam, would address their anger and frustration. Women joined demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Syria. Some were seized, killed and raped – but the women were not going to be the silent shadows of the bin Laden vision.
While visiting the State Department on Monday, I asked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton how the death of bin Laden might change the dynamics of the Arab Spring uprising. She said that foreign policy experts are trying to figure that out by closely monitoring what was happening on the Internet.
The young Arabs who were coordinating their protests via Twitter, Facebook and other social media were now sharing their responses to bin Laden’s death. Foreign policy experts, Clinton said, were analyzing the comments for patterns, trying to put the pieces together.
Clinton said American diplomacy, meanwhile, would try to put the killing of bin Laden in a proper frame – “to shape its meaning and create a narrative to convince people that he was not a martyr. He was a murderer.”
Martyr or murderer, bin Laden already did not seem to matter much. Support for the terrorist had already crashed in the Muslim world, according to a Pew Research Center survey. Asked whether they had confidence in bin Laden to do the right thing in world affairs, only 1 percent of Muslims in Lebanon said yes, down from 19 percent in 2003.
In Jordan, the percentage of Muslims expressing confidence in bin Laden had collapsed from 56 percent in 2003 to 13 percent now. Bin Laden’s highest confidence rating, 34 percent, is found in the Palestinian territories, but even that number is down sharply from 72 percent in 2003.
What happened? Well, in 2005, al-Qaida claimed responsibility for blowing up 52 people in hotels in Amman, Jordan’s capital. Two years later, the group boasted of bomb attacks in the Algerian capital of Algiers, killing 33 innocents. Months later, its bombs massacred 41 at the U.N. offices in Algiers.
Last year, al-Qaida claimed responsibility for bombing hotels in Baghdad, killing 36, then in October, storming into a Sunday Mass in one of the city’s churches and massacring 52. Last month, terrorists believed to be al-Qaida operatives set off a bomb in Marrakech, Morocco, killing 15 people, 10 of them foreigners.
Could there be any greater difference in tactics than between the brave nonviolence of young Arab demonstrators facing off against armed totalitarians and the cowardly violence of al-Qaida against bystanders?
Could there be any wider gulf in aspiration than between the pro-democracy youth wanting votes and jobs and the al-Qaida dictators seeking to enforce an all-controlling brand of religion and to shut away half the population, women?
To Americans who suffered directly or indirectly from the outrages of Sept. 11, 2001 – nearly all of us – the killing of bin Laden brought a sense of justice. But from a geopolitical standpoint, did it matter all that much what cave or mansion or closet he was hiding in?
Frankly, his fall to insignificance was the sweetest revenge.