The Abbotabad Incident: A Lesson For Young Americans

Antigone: Death yearns for equal law for the dead.
Creon: Not that the good and bad draw equal shares.
Antigone: Who knows that this is holiness below?
Creon: Never the enemy, even in death, a friend.
Antigone: I cannot share in hatred, but in love.
Creon: Then go down there, if you must love, and love
the dead. No woman rules me while I live.

Antigone, Sophocles, 441 BCE  

U-S-A. U-S-A.
Obama got Osama. Obama Got Osama.
You can’t beat us (clap-clap-clap-clap-clap-clap). You can’t beat us.
Fuck bin La-den. Fuck bin La-den.

N+1 Blog, chants heard at Ground Zero, New York, May 2011

We got Voldemort, We Got Voldermort.

Chant, heard on campuses at Iowa, Stanford, and UC Davis, May 2011


Contrary to what many liberals imagined in November 2008, the debasement of American political culture continues apace. Instead of reversing the trend, the lawyer-President and his team have deliberately accelerated the process. There have been more deportations of immigrants than under Bush; fewer prisoners held without trial have been released from Gitmo, an institution that the lawyer-President had promised to close down; the Patriot Act with its defining premises of what constitutes friends and enemies has been renewed and a new war begun in Libya without the approval of Congress on the flimsy basis that the bombing of a sovereign state should not be construed as a hostile act; whistleblowers are being vigorously prosecuted and so on—the list growing longer by the day. Politics and power override all else. Liberals who still believe that the Bush administration transcended the law while the Democrats are exemplars of a normative approach are blinded by political tribalism. Apart from Obama’s windy rhetoric, little now divides this administration from its predecessor.

Nothing illustrates this debasement so well as the incident at Abbotabad. Ignore, for a moment, the power of politicians and propagandists to enforce their taboos and prejudices on American society as a whole, a power often used ruthlessly and vindictively to silence opposition from all quarters—Bradley Manning, Thomas Drake, Julian Assange, Stephen Kim, currently being treated as criminals and public enemies, know this better than most—and examine, in its bare essentials, what took place.

To pull himself out of a slump, the President ordered an execution. Bush and posse had launched the Afghan war after 9/11 as a straightforward exercise in revenge with the stated objective of capturing Bin Laden, “dead or alive.” Subsequently, or so one is told, the Republican leaders only wanted him dead. In 2006 on my way back from Lahore I encountered an acquaintance from my youth. Shamefacedly he confessed that he was a senior intelligence officer on his way to a European conference to discuss better ways of combating terrorism. The following conversation (a lengthier version can be found in my book The Duel: Pakistan on the Flightpath of American Power) ensued:

‘Is OBL still alive?’
He didn’t reply.
“When you don’t reply,’ I said, ‘I’ll assume the answer is yes.”
I repeated the question. He didn’t reply.
“Do you know where he is?”
He burst out laughing.
“I don’t, and even if I did, do you think I’d tell you?’
“No, but I thought I’d ask anyway. Does anyone else know where he is?”
He shrugged his shoulders.
I insisted: “Nothing in our wonderful country [Pakistan] is ever a secret. Someone must know.”
“Three people know. Possibly four. You can guess who they are.”
I could. “And Washington?”
“They don’t want him alive.”
“And your boys can’t kill him?”
“Listen, friend, why should we kill the goose that lays the golden eggs?”

To take him alive would have meant locking him in Guantanamo till he died. Better to kill him when the time was right. Finally he was tracked down by US special agents in the field and an execution ordered. That is the official version. The truth is probably much more complicated and might never be revealed unless, in the months ahead, a friendly hacker does the decent thing. Without a well-placed network of collaborators in Pakistan (including some in high places) the operation would have been very difficult, SEALs or no SEALs.

Who ordered the assassination?

Obama obliged and some of his young supporters, numbering several hundreds rather than thousands, came out to cheer. The enemy was dead. Rejoice, rejoice was the liberal motto of the hour and they did. Maureen Dowd in the New York Times and Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, regarded by many liberals as the ultimate in political wisdom, were cheered up by the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. Their boy, whom they sometimes mocked, had scored a rare hit.

Nor were they alone. Leaders of tributary and vassal states (including Pakistan) queued on the phone to congratulate Obama, whose lean and hungry look on the screen as he watched the Navy Seals in action, suggested he was already thinking of his next term. European leaders repeated the same mantra: “His death makes the world a safer place.”

I want to leave them alone, mired in their own economic crises, blinded by their addiction to money and power and incapable of understanding that they preside over a political-economic system in decline.

I am far more interested in the generation of young Americans, still at school or college, between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one, an intellectually formative period in one’s life:  this generation has seen its country permanently engaged in war and conflict of one variety or another. What does it mean to be young and a citizen of the most powerful empire in world history? What impact did the Abbotabad killing have on them? The majority are confronted with the problems of everyday life:  unemployment, poverty, semi-employment, social deprivation, volunteering for the armed forces or incarceration and its corollary (the loss of the right to vote). I wonder how many of them cheered the Navy SEALs? For others, including those who can afford to pay for higher education and see their futures tied to the ideological and military successes of the Empire it matters a great deal. The number of young people who felt compelled to rush to Ground Zero or the White House was not large but  the social composition was interesting. Mostly they were the offspring of liberal arts colleges and universities who—like liberal columnists and liberal TV anchors—saw this as an Obama triumph with which they could identify.  Read more