The assassination of American ideals

By Nathan Place (
Updated: 2011-05-12 11:30
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Clearly, I need to have my head examined. According to President Obama, that's the appropriate measure for any American-- let alone a New Yorker like me-- who wasn't overjoyed last week to hear that Osama bin Laden, the presumed mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, has been killed. I say "presumed" because as likely as it may be-- perhaps even certain-- that bin Laden was responsible for the attacks, he was never given a trial, and now that he's dead, he never will be. So while more balanced New Yorkers ran through the streets screaming "USA! USA!" the main two consequences of this event that occurred to me were, first, that the full truth of what happened on Sept 11 was lost at the bottom of the sea with bin Laden's body, and second, that political assassinations have now become a publicly accepted tool of American foreign policy. Something must be wrong with me, because I don't feel happy about these things; I feel only sickened and fearful for the future.

To be clear, this is not because I believe bin Laden was innocent. Even if he wasn't involved in 9/11, he was still known to have masterminded other attacks, and had founded his own terrorist network, Al Qaida. In addition, many signs pointed to his hand in 9/11, including his own outright confession in a number of videos. By any reasonable estimate, he was an extremely likely suspect.

So let's assume-- since at this point, we have no other choice anyway-- that bin Laden was guilty. Even then, why not give him a trial? The answer is that today, in their understandable hatred of whoever attacked us that day in September, many Americans have come to view due process--once one of our core ideals--as a way of coddling terrorists, rather than a way of making sure the person being "coddled" is a terrorist at all-- and, more important in bin Laden's case, of gathering more information on how the crime was carried out, who else was involved, and how America might better protect itself from similar attacks in the future. The Obama administration rightly praised the mission that killed bin Laden for obtaining his computers and documents, noting realistically that the information contained in them could save American lives. Why, then, was the greatest database of all destroyed and dumped into the sea?

The most dangerous aspect of the mission, however, is its success. By victoriously executing a military mission against a civilian suspected--not convicted--of acts of terrorism, the Obama administration may have finally proved in many people's minds the viability of "war on terrorism," an idea that was morally and strategically bankrupt to begin with. A terrorist is a civilian, not a soldier. And with no trials to distinguish the terrorists from other civilians, how does one know one is battling—or assassinating—a terrorist or someone totally innocent? By giving this twisted policy its first real victory, President Obama may have entrenched it in a way the Bush team never could—and that is scary.

Now added to this "war's" arsenal of publicly accepted tactics-- which already included pre-emptive war, indefinite detentions, and torture-- is assassination. Of course, the United States is no newbie at assassinations. During the Cold War, the CIA killed countless different figures inconvenient to US interests. But back then, these assassinations were kept secret, and when they were revealed they were regarded by Americans with shame or denial or outrage. Now, with the killing of bin Laden, an assassination has been publicly announced by an American president, and Americans have responded by cheering in the streets. No wonder, then, that the tactic is already spreading to other areas like Libya, where the United States is currently picking off members of Colonel Gadhafi's family.

So no, I don't feel happy that Osama bin Laden has been killed. Instead, I feel an overwhelming sense that the United States is losing its identity as a country. Now that political assassinations have changed from a dirty little secret to an accepted—and publicly flaunted—tool of our foreign policy, who are we? What do we stand for anymore? Or, perhaps more important, what do we stand against? We're OK with torture, OK with assassinations, we've dispensed with the idea of due process and, when the defendant is hated enough, we no longer assume they're innocent until proven guilty-- just guilty, and those who ask for a trial are told to have their heads examined.

Under such circumstances, what does it mean to be an American? New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has one answer. For her, bin Laden's killing was "a win that made us feel like Americans again-- smart and strong and capable of finding our enemies and striking back at them…" Is that all we are now? Effective killers? During the Cold War, violations of American ideals were kept secret so Americans could continue believing in the ideological framework that justified it-- democracy vs. totalitarianism, human rights vs. oppression, etc. But in the age of bin Laden, such tactics are used out in the open, and the ideals that justify them are as vaguely defined as the shadowy network of terrorists we're fighting.

What bin Laden's death means to me is mainly the clinching of a trend that began under Bush and is continuing under Obama: namely, that the United States is becoming something much uglier than it once was-- even if its beauty were never flawless to begin with. As someone else once put it, speaking about a month after the Sept 11 attacks, "There are also other events that took place, bigger, greater and more dangerous than the collapse of the towers. It is that this Western civilization, which is backed by America, has lost its values and appeal." That person was speaking not of his fears, but of his hopes for what the effects of the attacks might be. His name was Osama bin Laden.

The author is a copy editor with China Daily website. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the China Daily website.