Why Does Osama Bin Laden’s Death Matter?

I think Osama bin Laden’s death matters. It seems obvious, doesn’t it? How could it not?

But just days after his death, news agencies, political analysts, terrorist experts and all number of well qualified people have said it might not matter as much as we, as Americans, all want it to. They say that bin Laden had lost his central role as leader of al-Qaida. They say his money will move on without him. They say that there are any number of people to take his place, and he was already struggling with health problems due to an enlarged heart anyway. All of these things might be true, but there are still reasons to disagree with the experts.

For 10 years, the United States has been fighting in Afghanistan. Unlike previous wars, this war doesn’t have a very tangible enemy. There aren’t Nazis, Vietcong, or North Koreans. There is al-Qaida, yes, but when Hitler died in World War II, it essentially ended the war in Europe. Bin Laden’s death won’t win us the War in Afghanistan. In fact, we could probably remain in Afghanistan another 20 years without “winning” the war. So why are we there?

We invaded Afghanistan after Sept. 11 for four very specific reasons: to remove the Taliban regime, to destabilize al-Qaida, to end Afghanistan’s use as a terrorist base, and to create a “viable democratic state.” Two of these have essentially been accomplished. The Taliban regime has been removed as the governing political force in Afghanistan, and al-Qaida has been destabilized and uprooted. There are several problems with the other two goals. While we have limited the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base, it would be nearly impossible to eradicate terrorism from the region completely. And what exactly is a “viable democratic state?” A democratic government under Hamid Karzai has been established since December of 2001. Does that not count? While it might not be the most stable area in the world, stabilizing Afghanistan would involve stabilizing the entire Middle East, a goal insurmountable even for the U.S. military and their $685.1 billion budget.

Furthermore, the U.S. government has spent the last ten years chasing bin Laden from cave to cave, compound to compound. Many have questioned the strategy: he’s a diseased old man on the run in the desert. Why should we care so much? The casualties pouring in every day and the perceived lack of progress were wearing on the American psyche. If bin Laden’s death won’t win us the war or accomplish either of our two remaining objectives, why is it so meaningful?

More than anything, the U.S. military strategists knew what bin Laden’s death would mean to the American people. The answer to why his death matters is simple: public opinion. We all saw the mobs outside (and inside) O’Neill Library Sunday night. People, especially college-aged people, went crazy around the country. The shock of Sept. 11 might have faded over the years, but constant reminders have brought it back frequently since then. Bin Laden’s death is symbolic. It is vindicating of all those who died on Sept. 11. It represents a decisive victory in a war that few people have supported lately. Hopefully, it will provide a sense of closure to those still suffering the grief of a lost family member or friend. While it might not have as much practical significance as we all expect, its importance to the American people cannot be understated.

As was expected, conspiracy theories have already flooded the Internet. They should be quenched by the government as soon as possible. While this might involve releasing graphic images or somewhat classified data, it is imperative for the American people to know with absolute certainty that the person they’ve hated so much for 10 years is dead.

Since Sunday night, many have called for the end of the War in Afghanistan. Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) recently said, “If we got him, it’s time to come home.” This idea at first appears foolish. Leaving Afghanistan now could lead to more attacks, a resurge of angry Islamic jihadists after the fall of their leader, and renewed Taliban influence in Afghanistan—the same things we were attempting to stop when we invaded in the first place. But at the same time, perhaps there is validity to leaving Afghanistan now. We would end the war on an upsurge of public opinion, leaving behind a legitimately elected government headed by Karzai, with the end goal of reducing terrorism generally accomplished. We would avoid falling into another Vietnam, as many political critics have called the War in Afghanistan. We could take the several million dollars spent on Afghanistan every year to focus on pressing issues like the deficit. Most importantly, we could prevent the further loss of human life. It is key for citizens to realize that there will probably never be a day where we can definitively say, “We have won the War in Afghanistan.” May 1 might be as close as we’ll ever come.


May 4, 2011