Sunday night, when President Obama came to the podium, the world learned that America has killed Osama bin Laden. And Americans learned that their tax dollars really work, save the ones that go to aid for Pakistan.
I’ve been reading so much I can barely tell if I have anything original or nuanced to say on the matter, but I think in order to process it all, I have to put some of this down…
The Administration needs to release evidence of bin Laden’s death, and soon: I have zero doubt that Osama bin Laden is dead. However, I am not a conspiracy theorist, or a citizen of a Middle Eastern country with uneasy feelings towards the U.S. When Saddam Hussein’s sons were killed, graphic images of them were released within a few days to show the people of Iraq. Bin Laden is a bigger deal, an almost mythical figure, and if this story is to resonate accurately through the Arabic and Islamic worlds, we need to deliver the goods. This story could also take on even greater meaning when juxtaposed with the movement towards freedom and democracy that is percolating in the Arab world, but not if they perceive some sort of cover-up. So, Republican Senator Lindsay Graham and I agree on this one: we need pictures. You can’t expect everyone to take it on faith.
American officials said that bin Laden was shot above the left eye after resisting. They have also gone into some detail about how his remains were moved from the compound, treated according to Islamic custom, and buried at sea (perhaps after the Saudis rejected him) to eliminate the possibility of his grave becoming a shrine. I bet they injected a GPS inside the cadaver, too.
MSNBC has suggested the Administration may release video of the burial. However, “Obama’s homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, told reporters… that the Obama administration has not yet decided if it will release photographic evidence that Osama bin Laden was killed in Sunday’s raid.” “Asked specifically if the White House might publish pictures to ‘avoid conspiracy theories throughout the Muslim world,’ Mr. Brennan replied: ‘We are going to do everything we can to make sure that nobody has any basis to try to deny that we got Osama bin Laden. And so therefore the releasing of information, and whether that includes photographs, this is something to be determined.’ ”
An aside: apparently, bin Laden left a final audio or video tape, kind of like John Malkovich at the end of In the Line of Fire, but Clint Eastwood and Rene Russo walk out of the room. I just hope he doesn’t put out more posthumous recordings than Tupac.
Another aside: will the public ever know who delivered the fatal blow? Will they appear on the White House lawn or The Late Show? Almost certainly not. But I bet at some point down the line, Obama will arrange a private meeting and make them feel pretty darn appreciated.
This is what the term “Breaking News” was actually intended for: I can’t recall a story of the magnitude, immediacy, and unpredictability as this, perhaps since 9/11. Around 9:40pm Sunday night, word of a presidential statement leaked and all news outlets began to mobilize. The end-of-weekend on-call crews transitioned to the heavy hitters as speculation ran rampant. Only a select few in the media knew the subject matter of the statement, and an embargo kept that quiet for quite a while. Although we would learn that the strike team of Navy SEALs had already completed their mission, this was all real, new, and seemingly out of nowhere. This was breaking news, unlike when things that happened two days ago are affixed with that name, but all the network does is tack on an additional morsel, like Joe Lieberman chiming in with thoughts on NATO strikes in Libya.
Modern communications technology is powerful: If you thought social media was a fad, you’ve been proven wrong. The outlet that dominated the initial dissemination of key details of this event was Twitter, from the word of an unprecedented presidential address after 10pm on a Sunday, to the flickers of what the topic of this address would be, to reporters like Jill Jackson at CBS going on record via tweet that it was about bin Laden’s death, to the pundits offering perspective, to the comic relief cracking wise. Oh, and let’s not forget about the Pakistani who unknowingly tweeted the whole raid. Indeed, Sunday night set a record of over 3000 tweets a second.
It’s weird to celebrate someone’s death: It’s an unequivocally good thing that he was found and brought to justice, but the sheer exhilaration that resulted from the announcement was off-putting to some. The Times captured this well:
“Laura Parisi, a 28 year-old writer for a marketing communications firm who lives in Portland, Ore., posted a message on Facebook wondering if gaiety was the appropriate way to mark bin Laden’s death. ‘Forgive me, because I know this a historic moment, but what’s with the celebrations/fireworks/ ‘USA! USA!’ chanting,’ she wrote. ‘Celebrating death in such a manner seems grossly inappropriate, even if it’s the death of someone who has killed thousands. Moreover, his death is symbolic in terms of national security. We’re no safer now than we were yesterday.’ “
“ ‘You’re celebrating the death of a man?’ asked Paul Soule, 50, as he headed to his job in the insurance industry in Chicago. ‘It’s horrible. He’s still a man.’ “
Pakistan’s government looks damn sketchy: It is obscenely suspicious that Osama seems to have been in a large house in Abbottabad, the veritable West Point of Pakistan, for years. As opposed to being in a desolate cave, it seemed Osama was in a “man cave.” Pakistani intelligence over the years now seems highly dubious and/or highly dishonest. Neither is good; the latter is worse. Further, how will this aspect, in addition to the larger killing of bin Laden, affect the region, in particular the war in Afghanistan? Will public support wane?
Franchises suck: The bummer of this is that unlike, say, Hitler’s death, bin Laden’s demise is not that of Al Qaeda. While Al Qaeda proper is already much weaker, and bin Laden’s “charisma” and leadership are no more, the organization still exists. “The Al Qaeda of today is a much different organization than the one Bin Laden presided over on Sept. 11, 2001. It is much less hierarchical and more diffuse.” In the “meantime, regional affiliates have blossomed in North Africa, Iraq, East Africa and Yemen. All have been personally blessed by Bin Laden, but each has developed its own strategy, fund-raising and recruiting methods.” Most notably, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), or as I took to calling them in a dash of the vocal chords, “Aw, Cwap!” has in many ways overtaken the original troublemakers. (It’s leader, Anwar al-Awlaki,”was born in New Mexico” and “has American and Yemeni citizenship.”) Hence, the fear of retaliation.
Two terms, TBD: Internet declarations of Obama’s inevitable re-election are hasty. Sure, he will receive an approval rating bump. But politics as we remember them will gradually come back. Almost everyone is rightfully (and wisely) praising the accomplishment of Obama, his national security team, and the military. Virtually every politician or pundit of consequence has commented with effusive, congratulatory, earnest, and patriotic language. The lone outlier seems to be Rush Limbaugh: the only person on both sides of the aisle who is tone deaf, dumb and blind. While Obama seems to have summarily erased any doubts about his leadership capabilities and deftness over foreign affairs and national security, a curious Cajun man once said, “It’s the economy, stupid.”
Our armed forces are badass: This is irrefutable. The Joint Special Operations Command (of the awesome acronym JSOC) that spearheaded this mission is impressive. It kind of sounds like a real-world G.I. Joe.
Here is the best account of the entire 8-month process that I have seen so far. The 79 soldiers who infiltrated bin Laden’s compound are well-trained and trained well for this operation, right down to making replicas of the compound for drills.
Further, in conjunction with the CIA, the military did meticulous detective work to arrive at the conclusion that bin Laden was very likely the high-value operative inside the compound. ”Our analysts looked at this from every angle, considering carefully who other than bin Laden could be at the compound,” a senior Administration official said. “We conducted red team exercises and other forms of alternative analysis to check our work. No other candidate fit the bill as well as bin Laden did.” It succeeded, and props for using a math analogy!
As Mike Allen reported in Politico: “With the team still in the compound, the commander on the ground told another commander that they had found Osama bin Laden. Applause erupted in Washington. Reinforcements came and picked up the SEALs, who had scavenged every shred and pixel of possible intelligence material from the house. U.S. forces took photographs of the body, and officials used facial-recognition technology to compare them with known pictures of bin Laden.”
In speaking with Brian Williams, former Clinton White House official Roger Cressey was the first person I heard to make the stellar point that the strike team also must have recovered this trove (or a “bonanza” as it was also put) of documents that will be invaluable for intelligence purposes.
The lines between intelligence and military organizations are vague, and the appointments (or re-assignments) of Leon Panetta and David Petraeus last week seem to solidify this. Maybe that’s a good thing.
Being president is a job for the highest of high-functioning adults: The presidency is the ultimate multi-tasking, left-brain calculating, right-brain innovating, secret-keeping, speech-giving, ease-conveying, strength-displaying job in the world. In the last few days, Obama saw and addressed the horrible tornado damage down south, met with an injured-and-recovering Gabrielle Giffords, and played stand-up comedian at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, all while walking around with the clandestine knowledge that he might be taking out Osama bin Laden any hour now. Plus, he probably tucked in Sasha and Malia in there. Talk about compartmentalization.
Since August, when this operation began in earnest, Obama actively led on it, chairing five meetings, and remained engaged and patient, all the while dealing with other domestic and foreign crises: a temporary tax cut deal, Libya, a potential government shutdown, etc.
As John Brennan said, “Still, though, there was nothing that confirmed that Bin Laden was at that compound, and therefore, when President Obama was faced with the opportunity to act upon this, the President had to evaluate the strength of that information and then made, what I believe was one of the most gutsiest calls of any president in recent memory.” So, apparently, Obama can also make a gut decision with the best of them. Dubya approves.
After the strike went down successfully, Obama gained his composure to put together a speech that would properly contextualize the events. The announcement was worth the delay, as it shared the news, reminded us of the history, and endeavored to use this moment to bring the country together. The vivid description he gave of what the suffering of 9/11 has been like, and what getting bin Laden means, struck me: I’ll never forget hearing him say, “The empty seat at the dinner table.” It’s intimate, palpable, universal. Someone like me who is lucky enough not to have lost a loved one on 9/11 can nonetheless empathize immediately.
He also subtly made inroads, not in a crass way, to remind all Americans that he does believe strongly in this country and its uniqueness. As John Dickerson said, ”Thus did the president both answer his conservative critics and rise above them. Yes, he was saying, I do believe in American exceptionalism—and so should any terrorist who would wish America ill.” And by the way, he lived up to a campaign promise that was, at the time, deemed by some as controversial, if not irresponsible.
Obama concluded, “Today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people. … Tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history, whether it’s the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens; our commitment to stand up for our values abroad, and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place. Let us remember that we can do these things not just because of wealth or power, but because of who we are: one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”