Despite the enticement of showing a patriotic spectacle, the television networks seemed subdued when they showed cheering crowds wrapped in the American flag dancing on the news of Osama bin Laden’s death. People didn’t dance in the streets when it was announced Hitler was dead. There was too much sorrow attached to his very existence and too high a price paid for ending it. Monsters make good nightmares, but moral shadows fall across every human endeavor. That’s true of Al-Qaeda as well as Nazism. Moral clarity exists when it comes to labeling evil for what it is, yet no such clarity exists over how to respond to evil.
When President Obama refused to release the gruesome photos of bin Laden’s body, he made the point that using the terrorist leader as a trophy isn’t who we are. He was correct speaking as an idealist but wrong speaking as a realist. I’m in favor of ideals. I’m glad when Obama injects adult fairness into the underhanded tactics that characterize current politics. But another part of me knows that the bad side of America is also who we are. In World War II photos of the bodies of fallen soldiers were not printed in the newspapers for the first part of the conflict, historians tell us. I vividly remember when Newsweek ran a color photo of a bloody fallen soldier in the late Eighties. Ironically, the site was Afghanistan, but I recall my shock that such a lurid image was being published outside the tabloid press. Now we are inured to much worse, and semi-pornographic journalism, in terms of sex and violence, reaches into the lives of children surfing the Internet.
But bin Laden was morally ambiguous for more reasons than mere images. He incited our hysteria and paranoia, two unhealthy trends in recent history. We created him, in effect, when we supported the Afghan rebels against the Soviets. We abandoned that country when it suited us and came back as invaders when the tide turned once more. We support corrupt regimes throughout the Middle East whose secret police forces are brutal and repressive. The U.S. suffered a horrendous blow when more than 3,000 people were killed on 9/11, yet the Arab world weighs in the balance 100,000 innocent Iraqis who died as a result of that attack, victims in a needless war that had nothing to do with bin Laden.
Terrorism isn’t morally ambiguous. I’m not saying that or implying it. Terrorism is a form of psychological torture on a mass scale. Few of us can calculate how to balance mass terror against actual war casualties. But from the perspective of oppressed people who have been fed religious propaganda all their lives, it isn’t clear that Al-Qaeda had dirty hands while George Bush had clean ones. Freedom fighting has a distasteful relationship with violence. In the larger context, guerrilla attacks were part of the uprisings in Palestine that led to the formation of Israel, as attacks by radical anarchists were part of the revolution against czarist rule in Russia. A moral person would condemn bin Laden out of hand, no doubt. Yet the larger picture is the rise of the dispossessed, a mass movement exemplified by the so-called Arab Spring.
For a long time the Arab world has been portrayed as a region where wrong is seen as right. Religious fanaticism is celebrated. Intolerance and anti-Semitism is the norm in certain sectors of society, something you proudly pass on to your children. Hatred of modernity, the suppression of women, and resistance to civil society in favor of Sharia law all add up to a picture that the West considers, frankly, immoral. So even the average Muslim must be a bad person. Such is our preconception. Even when a popular uprising occurs on the best of terms, as in Egypt, the cameras turn away from virulent anti-Israel signs and chanting. When the new regime declared its solidarity with Iran, embraced Ahmadinajad, and also opened the way for arms and supplies to flow into Gaza, the story was more or less buried.
Like it or not, we are going to live in the moral shadows when it comes to that part of the world. The rule of the Taliban, with its barbaric treatment of women, was greeted as an Islamic paradise by much of the Arab world. Bin Laden t-shirts were widely popular. Yet these backward, dispossessed people deserve to be free, even as they bring their prejudices with them. Democracy doesn’t turn people into saints. But it does give them a chance to become more humane, educated, prosperous, and liberated. Under those conditions wrong can stop being right. We must see the Islamic world through their eyes, not ours. Otherwise, imposing our values on an unwilling population can only lead to deeper rifts, creating a seedbed for the next bin Laden.