The killing of bin Laden and the ugly tribalism of US politics

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Three o’clock in the morning on May 1, Washington DC erupts in celebration of the killing of Osama bin Laden.

By Rupen Savoulian

May 20, 2011 -- Early in May 2011, Osama bin Laden, a Saudi billionaire criminal and religious fanatic, was murdered by US Navy SEAL troops in Pakistan. Bin Laden was a reactionary political figure, who promoted obscurantist, fundamentalist prejudices in the service of criminal wars and terrorism. He was a long-term ally and asset of the United States, whose repugnant views and activities were cultivated throughout the 1980s during Washington’s Cold War campaign against the secular, socialist government of Afghanistan.

His killing has been greeted with applause and tribalistic flag-waving in the United States. Australian politicians across the political spectrum parroted the position of the Obama regime – the killing of bin Laden was a cause of celebration, an expression of righteous chest thumping. I think that this tribalistic gloating is nauseating, and while I am not sorry that another fundamentalist is dead, the display of gushing applause for the US empire is sickening. This is not patriotism, but an ugly, malicious tribalism where we are invited to cheer over the corpses created by US military forces. Antony Loewenstein calls it a “violence-obsessed culture”.

Robert Fisk, the perceptive veteran war correspondent, wrote that Bin Laden was a non-entity rendered obsolete by recent history. His role as a useful mercenary reached its end a long time ago, and he was shunted aside by his former paymasters. The former paymasters being the United States, who welcomed his brand of anti-socialist backward fundamentalism in the 1980s. Celebrated by former US president Ronald Reagan as "freedom fighters", bin Laden was one of thousands of anti-communist Islamist guerrillas who responded to US efforts to fight the atheistic communist regime of Afghanistan, drawing in Soviet troops. The Afghan government had committed such serious atrocities, like providing women with health care and education, you see. Such actions could not go unpunished during the Cold War, so the US and its regional allies Pakistan and Saudi Arabia organised the largest pan-Islamic anti-communist uprising of the 20th century. Bin Laden was one of "our guys".

Gilles Kepel, a professor of Middle East Studies at the Institute for Political Studies in Paris, documented the rise of the Afghan crusade in his fascinating book, Jihad: The trail of political Islam. The US and Saudi promoters of the Afghan jihad against the regime assembled a heterogeneous group of Islamist mujahideen united by their rejection of secularism and humanism. One of the holy warriors trained and financed during this time was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who expressed his disagreement with atheism by throwing acid in the faces of unveiled women.

But in the early 1990s, the Afghan crusade ended, the Islamist guerrillas took power and promptly began a fratricidal civil war. Bin Laden, along with the thousands of ex-mujahideen, were abandoned by the United States. Bin Laden, a monster of our own creation as Robert Scheer suggests, became a useful demon, a bogeyman to scare the population into supporting US wars abroad.

The gloating over bin Laden’s killing is calculated to increase support for a swaggering US war machine. As the US Socialist Worker points out, the world is a more dangerous place since Bin Laden’s death by adding domestic support for reckless and aggressive US military operations around the world.

Why kill bin Laden?

Which leads me to a disturbing question – why was it necessary to kill bin Laden; why not capture him and put him on trial?

After World War II, the top Nazis who were captured were put on trial for their crimes against humanity. The case against them was solid, the evidence of their guilt overwhelming. In 1942, while the war was raging in Europe and the Pacific, the Allied powers made a joint declaration stating their intention to prosecute the top officials of the Axis states for their mass atrocities. The US chief prosecutor Robert Jackson stated, “We must establish incredible events with credible evidence”. The Nuremberg trials have an enormously important legacy – that heads of state and their officials can be held to account for their criminal actions, that human rights transcend national boundaries, and providing a major impetus for setting up an international criminal court.

You would think that for the professional US soldiers, capturing bin Laden and his associates would have been relatively easy – and putting him on trial for his numerous crimes would have demonstrated to the world the US regime’s commitment to human rights and justice, as established by the Nuremberg precedent and the Tokyo war crimes trials for Japan's war criminals. The al Qaeda operatives were responsible for the September 11 atrocities, so putting the commander-in-chief of that terrorist group on trial and exposing it crimes in open court would have boosted the credibility and standing of the US government around the world – wouldn’t you think?

Killing bin Laden means that he has taken his secrets to his grave. The embarrassing details of his criminal service with US intelligence agencies, his relations with Pakistan and Saudi Arabian officials, and the incestuous relationship that the US has with Pakistani and Saudi financial-military elites is now buried with bin Laden’s corpse.

Torture was one of the many crimes for which the Nazi and Japanese war criminals were tried and prosecuted after World War II. Waterboarding is a form of torture for which perpetrators have been hanged. So why did the New York Times and other US newspapers feature the ludicrous claims that torturing suspects in Guantanamo bay led to the killing of bin Laden? Surely any person undergoing torture would say anything to make the mistreatment stop? John Brennan, the counter-terrorism adviser to President Obama, tried to distance himself from assertions that torturing detainees led to the bin Laden killing, even though he never actually used the word "torture".

If the torture of people detained in Guantanamo Bay revealed the location of bin Laden, then we could also state that the information extracted from detainees under duress led the US to invade Iraq, a terrible debacle for US foreign policy and the destruction and sectarian fragmentation of that society.

Obama has stated on numerous occasions that justice has been done with the murder of bin Laden. But there was no trial, no judge and jury – just the state-sponsored execution team and the subsequent lies and distortions to justify a cold-blooded murder. The details of this episode are lost amid the fog of jingoistic, flag-waving tribalism, a fabricated euphoria designed to distract us from the underlying motivations of US imperial power.

Killing one irrelevant fanatic will make no difference to the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The conditions that created thousands of bin Ladens remain – the open-ended "war on terror", the continuing US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the US regime’s uncritical support for Israel's occupation of Palestinian land. These political problems provide an impetus for reactionary religious figures to exploit legitimate grievances, building up support for their obscurantist agendas.

As Farooq Tariq, spokesperson of the Labour Party Pakistan, wrote; “religious fanatics and the imperialist powers provide each other with justification for escalating violence. This is a never-ending cycle”. While the weakening of socialist parties in the region has provided an opening for religious fundamentalism to grow, it should never be forgotten that, as Tariq states: “The rise of religious fundamentalism is a direct result of government policies of a ruling elite and its dependence on US and other imperialist forces.”

As the May 3 editorial of the US Socialist Worker stated, the war on terror is being renovated. Bin Laden is dead, and bin Ladenism is a thoroughly repugnant, vicious ideology that hindered the cause of working people. Bin Ladenism is the deadly spawn of the US-organised anti-communist Islamist rebellion in Afghanistan, a brutal warlord among many mujahideen fighting against a secular, progressive government that turned Afghanistan into a Cold War battlefield.

This killing is being used by the mouthpieces of the US empire to cheer on unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to continue its program of "rendition", which involves throwing suspects into torture chambers with no recourse or appeal, and distracting us from the crumbling US economy, plagued with problems even though we are told that the 2008 global financial crisis is over. While Obama proclaims that the good times are back, the living standards and conditions of working people are still falling, and anger is simmering beneath the surface. We must stand up against the macabre celebrations and flag-waving over corpses – chanting “USA!” repeatedly will not help us while the economy is disintegrating.

The best response to the al Qaeda types has been provided by the Arab masses. The Arab spring, consisting of mass insurrections by the dispossessed and poverty-stricken people of the Arab world against dictatorial regimes, not only rendered al Qaeda and bin Laden obsolete, they gave new hope and inspiration to millions around the world and made the US policymakers tremble.

[Rupen Savoulian is a member of the Socialist Alliance in Australia.]