King of the Greek Molossian tribe during the Hellenistic era that spanned from 323 B.C. to 146 B.C., Pyrrhus of Epirus was considered by Hannibal himself to be the time’s greatest military commander, perhaps second only to Alexander the Great. He was a staunch and able opponent to the Romans, as demonstrated in encounters such as the Battle of Asculum that pitted roughly equal forces against each other. After two days of fighting, Pyrrhus achieved victory through a strategy of using light infantry to draw Roman forces out into the open and pit them against war elephants and special troops. Eight thousand Roman soldiers were killed. Among the Greeks, the losses amounted to 3,000, including officers. Pyrrhus is reported to have said, “One more such victory and we shall be undone.” Today, of course, the general lends his name to the term Pyrrhic victory — a victory achieved at a very high cost, enough to make the success rather pointless.
It seems fitting to think about Pyrrhus on the occasion of Osama Bin Laden’s demise. While his death is certainly not a loss to the world, I have to interrupt the celebration with an uncomfortable question: At what cost did we achieve our so-called victory? Before even attempting an answer, however, the greater question is whether Bin Laden’s death truly is a meaningful victory. We may have defeated Bin Laden the man, but have we, in our hearts, truly defeated Bin Laden the symbol?
Through horrific consequences, terrorism is rooted in the power of symbolism to evoke fear. The tragedy of Sept. 11 isn’t only that so many innocent people lost their lives in a senseless attack, but that the memory of their lives has been tarnished by the fear and hatred that arose in our hearts in the aftermath. Demonstrating the effectiveness of terrorism as a tool to sow chaos, our response to that tragic day was to launch an irrelevant war on Iraq and re-tool the government into a massive security apparatus. Post-Sept. 11, the rule of law has been abandoned in favour of indefinite detention, torture, extraordinary rendition and assassination. For us mere mortals, flying is no longer something to be enjoyed but endured as we are subjected to increasingly stringent and invasive security protocols. All this has already been the topic of commentary by observers going against the mainstream narrative that tacitly encourages sacrificing our liberties in the name of security. But the point remains: The U.S. suffered a destabilizing change as a result of Sept. 11, and that sort of change is precisely what terrorism aims to accomplish.
Of course, the argument could be made that the America in reality never has matched America as a symbol. The country’s media-amplified differences, spanning the spectrum of political ideologies, certainly illustrate the fact that Americans don’t really share the same vision of their country. On a domestic level, the differences span everything from economics to gay marriage. From a policy standpoint, some, like former President Bush, cheer the use of waterboarding on detainees. Others are repelled and call it torture, advocating instead the interrogation techniques perfected by law enforcement. Some support wars abroad in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as military intervention in countries like Libya. Others are opposed. Differences will arise in any society, of course, without shredding the fabric of a common national identity. Yet considering how the U.S. went about dealing with Bin Laden, the shredding is more profound: Is the U.S. a country of law and order based on reason or merely yet another advocate for the law of the jungle?
Life as Reality TV
Reading about the commando raid evokes the notion that Bin Laden’s last moments alive are the stuff movies are made of. All the spycraft, helicopter flights and firefights will undoubtedly offer thrilling self-congratulatory fare as only Hollywood can deliver it. In the greater perspective of our saturated consumerist media, we’ve witnessed yet again how we are no longer engaged with reality but with scripted narratives — “Reality TV.” Lost in the hail of bullets is the fact that Osama Bin Laden was not brought to justice. He was not put on trial, his acts not subjected to the rational scrutiny of the society he attacked. He was not made to face the people he harmed. Of course, his guilt was not in doubt, but our actions in dealing with Bin Laden are ultimately reflections of ourselves. “His demise should be welcomed by all who believe in peace and human dignity,” President Obama said while announcing Bin Laden’s death, adding without apparent irony that “we will be true to the values that make us who we are.” We killed him, yes. Assassinated, even. We’ve had our revenge. But we ultimately subscribed to the same viewpoint Bin Laden espoused by using violence to confront violence. In so doing, we took our place in the endless cycle. They strike, we strike back, they strike back, and so on. There’s no reason to think that Bin Laden’s death actually changes anything insofar as the hydra of terrorism is concerned.
Furthermore, that Bin Laden was killed instead of put on trial — even if his death came about by resisting the special ops forces that invaded his compound — means that those who would use violence to achieve their means still will not think twice to take up arms or strap bombs to their chests. After all, the U.S. has reinforced its position as one side of an armed conflict. They shoot, we shoot back, people die on both sides, all according to expectations in the us-versus-them perspective of war and cyclical revenge. The opportunity to demonstrate ourselves as a very different kind of moral entity, one rooted in ideals tied to reason and benevolence instead of hate and malevolence, has been lost. We’ve squandered the opportunity to actually embody “peace and human dignity” instead of merely puffing out our chests and blurting it out in speeches.
So Bin Laden’s death, almost 10 years after the fact, isn’t really a victory. As author Barry Lando writes in regards to the uprisings against Middle Eastern dictatorships (Osama Bin Laden — Everyone's Missing the Point), “In many ways, the figure gunned down in Pakistan was already irrelevant — more a symbol of past dangers than a real threat for the future.”
Indeed, from the point of view of America and many of its allies, the most menacing symbol in the Arab world today is not Osama bin Laden but another Arab who recently met a violent death — Mohamed Bouazizi, the 26-year-old Tunisian fruit vendor who chose to set himself on fire after being harassed by corrupt local police.
His act, of course, ignited the storm that has spread across the Arab world and proven a much more serious threat to America’s allies in the region than al Qaeda ever was.” The price we paid for this so-called victory is, in addition to the thousands of deaths and injuries, what Pulitzer Prize- winning reporter Chris Hedges described (On Osama Bin Laden's Death) as a self-inflicted “disease of empire, the disease of nationalism.” More profound, however, is the cost to our own humanity, the fact that we’ve tapped into the worse elements of our psyche instead of the best. Writing for Salon, David Sirota points out (“USA! USA!” is the wrong reponse) that Bin Laden “has changed America’s psyche from one that saw violence as a regrettable-if-sometimes-necessary act into one that finds orgasmic euphoria in news of bloodshed. In other words, he’s helped drag us down into his sick nihilism by making us like too many other bellicose societies in history — the ones that aggressively cheer on killing as long as it is the Bad Guy who is being killed.” With an adjustment, Sirota hits the mark. Bin Laden didn’t change us. We changed ourselves. The most crippling cost we have paid to achieve “victory” rests in willingly surrendering what should distinguish us from the thoughtless brute: The capacity for self-reflection joined with the compassionate desire to better ourselves and the world. And so the wheel turns.
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