By now everyone has heard the news: US military forces killed Osama bin Laden and buried his body at sea.
People are celebrating, and rightly or wrongly giving the President credit. By why does it matter?
Why does bin Laden’s killing matter? Operationally, it doesn’t at all–he wasn’t any kind of a tactical or strategic mastermind and wasn’t behind ongoing attacks by the Taliban. And yet, his death does matter to people. People are celebrating.
The word thrown around is “closure.” Bin Laden is dead, so now we can move on. That’s what closure means. But what is closed? What is ended? Whether you are on the right or the left, whether you consider the 9-11 attacks as a fundamentalist reaction to American freedom, Western civilization, American colonialism/imperialism, or globalism, you have to acknowledge that bin Laden’s death actually addresses none of those things (or the reaction in the Islamic world to them). If those sentiments have cooled somewhat, it’s only because the center of the global economy since 2001 has shifted to China, and because American capitalism since 2008 is not the juggernaut it once was.
This is why it matters: on September 12, 2001, we started telling ourselves a story, a revenge fantasy, about killing the people who attacked us. The war was never explained this way. It was always justified as a being about democracy or anti-terrorism generally, but that vengeance is what drove us collectively on, and why so many feel “closure” today. Bin Laden had to die so the war could end. In fact, his death literally defines the end. The 9-11 dead have been avenged.
Politically, we now have the political/rhetorical cover to end the war in Afghanistan that costs over $70 billion a year and has cost $345 billion since it started. We needed something to declare victory over, and now we have it. That’s also the significance of announcing this on the 8-year anniversary of Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech. But we ask yourself this: was it worth the price? Was it worth 1400+ US casualties, $345 billion, and the loss of prestige and influence in world affairs, all to kill one asshole?
And do you really think the war will end? People fight wars for all kinds of emotional reasons, it’s easy for governments and leaders to spin people up over religion or culture or revenge to support a war on someone else.
But nation states do not fight wars for these reasons, or they don’t exist as states for very long. States fight wars over resources. I will even go so far as to say that all wars in the post-Cold War era are fought over scarce resources. States go to war because according to some economic and material calculus, war is necessary to maintain not their survival but the status quo.
All wars are fought over scarce resources, and this one has been no different. The conduct of the war can change, we can even stop calling it a war and call it something else (“a continuing presence”), but the war will continue. There is simply too much money at stake.