When President Obama announced that U.S. special forces had helicoptered into Pakistan, broken into a secret compound an hour from the capital, and killed Osama bin Laden, celebrations broke out all across America.
The man who plotted the mass murder of 3,000 of us had at last received his just reward. College students ran to the White House to chant “USA! USA!”
Even if one believes that rejoicing at executions of murderers is unseemly for a Christian people, the demands of justice had been met. The world is a better place without bin Laden, who was developing plans to blow up U.S. passenger trains on the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
Yet, in Pakistan and across the Middle East, even in London, some came out to praise the “martyr” and threaten revenge.
In a way, this is the more interesting phenomenon. Why would people, who must believe themselves righteous and moral, keen and wail at the death of a monster who did what bin Laden had done?
Though Osama’s time was past—only 18 percent of the Arab world held a favorable view of him at his death—he was once among the most admired figures in the Islamic world.
In 2003, in Jordan, 56 percent of the pubic voiced confidence in Osama. In 2005, in Pakistan, 52 percent agreed. In July 2009, after Obama’s Cairo speech to the Muslim world, 22 percent of Palestinians said the U.S. president inspired confidence; 52 percent said Osama bin Laden did.
How to explain this? Do Arabs and Muslims approve of mass murder of innocent civilians? Why did so many find so much to admire in a man who planned the atrocities of 9/11?
In one man’s judgment, Osama was admired because he alone in the Arab world had the astonishing audacity to stand up and smash a fist into the face of the world’s last superpower, which had become one of the most resented powers in the Middle East. He was applauded because he had struck the most savage blow dealt America since British troops burned the Capitol and White House in 1814.
In short, the awe and admiration accorded bin Laden in the first half of the last decade were directly proportional to the depth of Arab and Muslim resentment and rage at the United States.
He was admired—for the enemy he hated and had attacked.
Nor is this unusual.
Why does Mao Zedong, who murdered 10 times as many Chinese as Japan in World War II, lie in honor in a crystal sarcophagus in Tiananmen Square? Because Mao is still seen to have “liberated” China from a century of rule by hated Japanese and Western imperial powers and their lackeys.
Why was Saigon renamed for Ho Chi Minh? Why do his remains rest in honor in Hanoi? Because “Uncle Ho” is seen by his people as having driven out the Japanese, French, and Americans and united all Vietnamese in a national home.
Even Fidel Castro, who brought the most successful country in Latin America down close to the level of Haiti, still has admirers inside and outside Cuba. Why? Because he defied the “Yanquis” and threw them out, along with their quisling, Fulgencio Batista.
Like Mao, Ho, and Castro, Osama tapped into the most powerful current of the age: ethnic nationalism, the desire of peoples to be rid of foreign rule and any oppressive foreign presence, and to put up against a wall all indigenous traitors who do the foreigners’ will.
Lest we forget, Osama was once an ally of Ronald Reagan’s America. We provided the Stingers, and he provided the money for the Afghan mujaheddin to administer the deathblow to the Soviet Empire.
Some yet argue that Osama and al-Qaeda attacked us because they hate our freedoms. Why, then, did they fight the Russians? Did they hate the freedoms enjoyed by Soviet citizens in Leonid Brezhnev’s time?
In his 1998 declaration of war, Osama gave three reasons. Americans, he said, had deployed their infidel troops on sacred Saudi soil. Americans were strangling a crushed Iraqi people with murderous sanctions. Americans were enabling Zionists to oppress and rob Palestinian Arabs of their lands.
Osama plugged his personal war into the anti-American currents running in the region. It was whom he was fighting against, us, not the new caliphate he claimed to be fighting for, a utopian absurdity, that caused scores of millions to admire him, even if many were horrified by his methods.
It was when al-Qaeda took to killing Arabs and Muslims that Osama lost the prestige he once had.
Osama is dead and gone. But the ideas he tapped into—the desire of Arab peoples to break free, to reclaim their sovereignty, to restore their past greatness, to be rid of the foreigner and his lackeys—are also the motivating ideas of the Arab Spring.
And as Victor Hugo reminded us, “Greater than the tread of mighty armies is an idea whose time has come.”
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