Osama Bin Laden's legacy: It will depend in part on what Obama does next.

A wartime lexicon.
May 2 2011 10:30 AM

Death of a Madman

What Obama does next will help define the legacy of Osama Bin Laden.

Osama Bin Laden. Click image to expand.
Osama Bin Laden

There are several pleasant little towns like Abbottabad in Pakistan, strung out along the roads that lead toward the mountains from Rawalpindi (the garrison town of Pakistani's military brass and, until 2003, a safe-house for Khalid Sheik Muhammed). Muzaffarabad, Abbottabad … cool in summer and winter, with majestic views and discreet amenities. The colonial British—like Maj. James Abbott, who gave his name to this one—called them "hill stations," designed for the rest and recreation of commissioned officers. The charming idea, like the location itself, survives among the Pakistani officer corps. If you tell me that you are staying in a rather nice walled compound in Abbottabad, I can tell you in return that you are the honored guest of a military establishment that annually consumes several billion dollars of American aid. It's the sheer blatancy of it that catches the breath.

Christopher Hitchens Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.

There's perhaps some slight satisfaction to be gained from this smoking-gun proof of official Pakistani complicity with al-Qaida, but in general it only underlines the sense of anticlimax. After all, who did not know that the United States was lavishly feeding the same hands that fed Bin Laden? There's some minor triumph, also, in the confirmation that our old enemy was not a heroic guerrilla fighter but the pampered client of a corrupt and vicious oligarchy that runs a failed and rogue state.

But, again, we were aware of all this already. At least we won't have to put up with a smirking video when the 10th anniversary of his best-known atrocity comes around. Come to think of it, though, he hadn't issued any major communiqués on any subject lately (making me wonder, some time ago, if he hadn't actually died or been accidentally killed already), and the really hateful work of his group and his ideology was being carried out by a successor generation like his incomparably more ruthless clone in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. I find myself hoping that, like Zarqawi, Bin Laden had a few moments at the end to realize who it was who had found him and to wonder who the traitor had been. That would be something. Not much, but something.

In what people irritatingly call "iconic" terms, Bin Laden certainly had no rival. The strange, scrofulous quasi-nobility and bogus spirituality of his appearance was appallingly telegenic, and it will be highly interesting to see whether this charisma survives the alternative definition of revolution that has lately transfigured the Muslim world. The most tenaciously lasting impression of all, however, is that of his sheer irrationality. What had the man thought he was doing? Ten years ago, did he expect, let alone desire, to be in a walled compound in dear little Abbottabad?

Ten years ago, I remind you, he had a gigantic influence in one rogue and failed state—Afghanistan—and was exerting an increasing force over its Pakistani neighbor. Taliban and al-Qaida sympathizers were in senior positions in the Pakistani army and nuclear program and had not yet been detected as such. Huge financial subventions flowed his way, often through official channels, from Saudi Arabia and other gulf states. As well as running a nihilist international, he was the head of a giant and profitable network of banking and money-laundering. He could order heavy artillery wheeled up to destroy the Buddhist treasures of Afghanistan in broad daylight. A nexus of madrassas was spreading the word from Indonesia to London, just as a nexus of camps was schooling future murderers.

And he decided to gamble all these ripening strategic advantages in a single day. Then, not only did he run away from Afghanistan, leaving his deluded followers to be killed in very large numbers, but he chose to remain a furtive and shady figure, on whom the odds of a successful covert "hit," or bought-and-paid-for betrayal, were bound to lengthen every day.

It seems thinkable that he truly believed his own mad propaganda, often adumbrated on tapes and videos, especially after the American scuttle from Somalia. The West, he maintained, was rotten with corruption and run by cabals of Jews and homosexuals. It had no will to resist. It had become feminized and cowardly. One devastating psychological blow and the rest of the edifice would gradually follow the Twin Towers in a shower of dust. Well, he and his fellow psychopaths did succeed in killing thousands in North America and Western Europe, but in the past few years, their main military triumphs have been against such targets as Afghan schoolgirls, Shiite Muslim civilians, and defenseless synagogues in Tunisia and Turkey. Has there ever been a more contemptible leader from behind, or a commander who authorized more blanket death sentences on bystanders?

Osama bin Laden Killed. Read more of Slate's coverage >>

Theocratic irrationality is not so uncommon that defeats like this are enough to render it unattractive. No doubt some braggarts will continue to tell instant opinion polls in the region that they regard him as a holy sheik or some such drivel. (Funny how those polls never picked up the local appetite for constitutional democracy.) With any luck, there will even be demented rumors that Bin Laden is not "really" dead. Fine: He'd probably already done the worst damage he was going to do. In anything describable as the real world, his tactics were creating antibodies and antagonists, or no longer matched observable conditions, or had at least hit diminishing returns. From Baghdad to Bali, it has been conclusively demonstrated that Bin-Ladenism is the cause of poverty, misery, and unemployment and not—as some know-nothings used to claim—a response to it.

The martyr of Abbottabad is no more, and the competing Führer-complexes of his surviving underlings will perhaps now enjoy an exciting free rein. Yet the uniformed and anonymous patrons of that sheltered Abbottabad compound are still very much with us, and Obama's speech will be entirely worthless if he expects us to go on arming and financing the very people who made this trackdown into such a needlessly long, arduous and costly one.

Video: President Obama announces the death of Osama Bin Laden

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