A rude awakening

I remember, back in 1978, a friend telling me that, on the morning that Pope John Paul I died, he awoke to see the Pope’s body on a bier on TV and his first thought was, “Why are they rerunning Pope Paul’s funeral?”

Waking up to breaking news is always jolting. So, when the alarm went off at 6:57am and the BBC Radio4 Today program announced the news that Osama bin Laden was dead, killed by an American military action in Pakistan, I was duly jolted.

Just as we will all remember where we were and what we were doing on September 11th, 2001, I think that we will remember today as the day on which the battle against al Qaida entered a new chapter.

I am, of course, happy that bin Laden is now beyond causing any harm on his own account to anyone in the world. My religious beliefs hold that bin Laden is now being judged by a higher authority than any earthly tribunal. But what will now follow from his death?

First, I believe that Western relations with Pakistan, especially US relations, will be deeply affected by this action. While that was inevitable in an operation of this kind, the support of Pakistan for the war in Afghanistan is absolutely necessary and this incursion will, inevitably, embarrass the Pakistanis and that loss of face will make it difficult for the Pakistani government to continue supporting the armed forces in Afghanistan. However, there will be enormous private relief in the government of Pakistan that bin Laden is no longer resident there and that this thorn in their side is now removed. Publicly they will not be able to express that relief, and they may try to rattle a few sabres in America’s direction, but they will not carry it to any great extent. A TV pundit has just said on BBC news that he believes that the Pakistani government was informed of the operation beforehand. but I think that if it had been informed, there would have been the danger that bin Laden would have been warned by people in the government that the operation was pending and would have moved elsewhere.

Second, it is clear now that al Qaida was no longer under any but nominal command and control from bin Laden. His compound lacked telephone and internet connections to the outside world. Messages may have been passed between him and al Qaida operatives but any minute-by-minute control of terrorist activity would have been impossible. Bin Laden must have been living in seclusion, in fear for his life, and spending each day worrying about his future. Good, I say. His last moments must have been filled with the same terror that he inflicted on others and that is some small recompense for those who suffered and died through his actions.

Third, President Obama should rise in the esteem of the American people through this. The last few days have seen coverage of Obama’s appearance at the Washington press corps’ dinner and “roast”, where his speech was funny, pointed, and effective. How much more we can admire his performance, as he must have known that this operation was about to take place. Only someone with certain knowledge of the future would have been free of doubt, worry, and apprehension lest the operation fail. Yet the President was cool, calm, collected, and able to deliver a speech full of humour without disclosing any inner worry. Had this operation ended in failure, Obama might have been destined to share the fate of President Carter, who authorised the incursion into Iran to try to rescue the US embassy hostages and then had to carry the blame for its result.

This will pose a dilemma for the Republicans. They will not be able to oppose the President effectively for quite a while. They will emphasize (rightly) the bravery of the soldiers who carried out the operation, while minimising the involvement of the President. As the 2012 election approaches, the American people will remember that President Obama authorised and motivated this operation and, I hope, will return him for a second term. The President must, however, not rely on this one operation to re-elect him. He must continue on the course he has charted.

Finally, bin Laden’s death will inspire plots from isolated terrorists to in some way revenge themselves on those who are responsible for bin Laden’s death. This will mean increased security around transport hubs and especially around airports. To my knowledge, no organisations that might be expected to be dismayed by bin Laden’s death have made any public statements. Perhaps they won’t. But privately, some people may feel that this event gives them license to avenge bin Laden’s death and this should give us pause, for the causes of terrorism do not lie in one man’s mania. Those causes are many and deep, and the solution does not lie in killing one man, however evil he might be. We need to redouble our efforts to understand the causes of terrorism in order to remedy them and remove at least this particular scourge from our lives.

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