Earlier today, I overheard the following remark in a Melbourne cafe.
“Osama bin Laden is not dead. He’s just a symbol for America’s fight against terrorism.”
Naturally, this was just a snippet of a broader discussion, but it got me thinking.
In a way, he was right. Much like Adolf Hitler is still very much alive for those who either worship or abhor the Second World War leader, more than half a century after his death, bin Laden will also live on — as a symbol — in different ways for different people.
As rejoicing college students took to the streets in New York and Washington, many of their Islamic counterparts in other corners of the world will have watched the celebrations with the same abhorrence that we might regard an anti-American, flag-burning rally captured by CNN or the BBC. That’s just two perspectives. I’m sure there are more.
Personally, bin Laden’s death (and the manic celebrations) have left me feeling strangely sad.
And I suspect that I am not alone.
I too wanted to see the person responsible for so many deaths, across so many continents — impartial to race, colour or creed — brought to justice, but I wanted a different kind of justice.
What is the greatest weapon against terror?
It was probably wise for the US military to bury ‘the martyr’ at sea (and prevent the creation of a ‘martyr’s tomb’), but if bin Laden is a symbol will his sudden demise as a person diminish any of his power?
Many will recall the sight of Suddam Hussein brought to justice, before an Iraqi court, stripped of his bravado (and apparent sanity). It’s hard not to appreciate the effect that this public disrobing is likely to have had on his supporters.
Humiliation can be a powerful force.
Yet, in the absence of a person captured to disarm through ridicule, what other tools do we have to undermine the spoils of bin Laden’s toils — the very real, sometimes paralysing, always costly main product of terrorism. Fear.
The greatest cost of terrorism?
Aside from eradicating the world of every extremist (or lone lunatic) through force, there is very little that can be done to undermine bin Laden’s life work (and those like him).
This is because terrorism, on a pure cost to benefit analysis, is the most efficient business model of war.
One nut-job with the technical savvy to build a shoe bomb has the capacity to not only shut down airports but stands to rob global economies of billions (yes, billions) of human hours — productive hours that are spent by the millions of people, who loose 10 minutes of their time removing footwear, when attempting to cross borders each day.
This is the true cost of terrorism. Time-sucking fear — fear of small random acts that, ultimately, only affect a fraction of the number of people who die through other, less intimidating causes every second of every minute, by driving badly, for example, or eating a peanut.
Even the joyful news of bin Laden’s death was coupled with a warning to expect reprisals.
If humiliation is the weapon and fear is the cost…
This, of course, begs the question, if bin Laden is a symbol for terrorism and fear is his legacy, what can we do to circumvent the lasting power he still has over us?
I have only one answer. And that is to laugh.
Despite what you might read or hear, there has never been a safer time to live on the planet.
(If you don’t believe me, click here.)
So, if all this talk of terrorism and death is getting you down, I suggest that you watch the following clip. It might seem insensitive, and no-one likes to speak ill of the dead. But while Osama bin Laden the person is dead, Osama bin Laden the symbol is alive and well.
And how do you rob a symbol of its power? Well, we have a powerful weapon in our arsenal.
Cue Family Guy.