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In the Wake of Bin Laden: How the Certainty of His Death Poses New Uncertainties

I do not rejoice in anyone’s death but I am glad Bin Laden has met his maker and grateful to those servicemen and women who put themselves in harm’s way to carry out our country’s military plans. In the case of Al Qaida, a non-state terrorist organization willing to target mostly civilians, a war played outside the rules has provoked responses that have been outside the rules as well.

Victory may be sweet, but we need to be vigilant that provocation does not cause us to abandon the American principles of law and individual rights that we hold dear. That said, I find my mind filled with questions:

If we went into Afghanistan to pursue Osama and deal Al Qaida a death-blow, is our reason for being there now satisfied (having satisfied it in Pakistan)? That debate has been going on for nearly the last decade, and the NY Times reports that it has surfaced again at the highest levels.

How could the Pakistani authorities not have known of Bin Laden’s compound, and its inhabitants? (This question was raised Monday on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air interview with Lawrence Wright, author of Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road of 9/11) Pakistan has some explaining to do, as do US officials who manage the relationship and provide military and financial aid.

Is it true of a networked terrorist organization that if we cut off the head, the body will die? History has its share of revolutionary and proto-revolutionary movements that have been effectively crushed by government force. Surveillance, intimidation, imprisonment and the execution of key leaders tend to be effective, but these have tended to be within national boundaries. Both the former Soviet Union and China provide illustrations here, but they are not alone. (Former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called the US Black Panther Party of the 1960s-70s “the greatest threat” to internal security and used all the FBI’s resources to harass and disrupt them, including the alleged use of assassination.) Chris Hedges, who covered Al Qaida for the NY Times, would suggest this is not one of those cases.

What potentially helpful terrorist-fighting information was found on computer hard drives confiscated from Bin Laden’s compound, (and is there any chance it might make it onto Wikileaks)?

What role did Google Earth play in identifying the compound for what it was – a refuge not just for someone important and clandestine but for the Most Wanted Man of The Century? Global surveillance of this kind would seem to be a game-changer all its own. Finding the compound on Google Earth certainly happened quickly just after the news broke.

Does Bin Laden’s death make terrorist acts against the US more likely? (If we believed that, would it make us wish Obama had acted otherwise in ordering the strike?)

Some reports have suggested a connection between information gleaned at Guantanamo and identifying the compound as Bin Laden’s. Are we to believe that torture (water-boarding or otherwise) played a role here? If we wanted a justification for torture, maybe some would consider this enough. (I favor observing the Geneva Convention.)

Some of these questions may be answered soon enough. I would like to say that I am confident of our government’s account of events in general, but I am not. (Iraq and WMD come to mind). Events surrounding Bin Laden’s death, however, will be subjected to as much scrutiny as any events in recent history, if not in all recorded history. The same technology and transparency that enables pervasive government surveillance, also enables relentless citizen inquiry, and I think the important truths here will become known if they are not already.

As satisfying as Bin Laden’s death may be in some respects, I am still hungry for more answers.


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