Osama bin Laden is dead. Good riddance. I heard the news last night as I was preparing to go to bed. I was unable to sleep much due to my excitement at the news. I vividly remember September 11, 2001 and I will never forget the anger I felt that day. I sympathize with the Americans who were celebrating in the streets last night at the news of bin Laden's death at the hands of American Special Forces. But then there was the morning. A pounding headache, the product of too little sleep and a drafty bedroom, was the first bit of reality to hit me today. As I read over the morning news, I noticed that little had changed. Details of the operation that neutralized bin Laden were coming through the news wires. As expected, a gigantic number of articles sprouted up all over the Internet discussing the future of the War on Terror and the jihadist movement that Osama bin Laden presided over, at least in spirit.
However, as the excitement and euphoria of the night before wore off in the midst of a busy day, I came to the realization that many of the same, tired ideas of the early days of the War on Terror were being trotted out again. Bin Laden was being compared to Hitler. May 02 was V-E or V-J Day depending on how you viewed bin Laden's death, either as a final, crushing blow to jihadism or just one major step along the still bumpy road to total victory. But do these comparisons make any sense? Bin Laden was not the head of a major, industrial nation-state with a powerful conventional military, as was the case with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. It is not even completely clear that he was still playing a major operational role within the increasingly decentralized jihadist movement. And yet, there are still many who wish to describe the war against Islamic terrorism as an existential "World War IV."
Ever since the end of the Cold War, Americans have been looking for a new enemy to replace the communists. To a certain extent, tinhorn Third World dictators filled the gap, but bin Laden was the real deal. But despite al-Qaeda’s obvious power as a potent terrorist organization, I just don’t see bin Laden-style jihadism as an ideological movement of major macro-historical importance. Communism presented a major ideological challenge to the West because it was centered on a powerful, industrial nation-state, the Soviet Union. While the Soviet Union is now the butt of jokes on Seth MacFarlane shows, at one time it was considered an extremely formidable power. Some scholars, such as Robert C. Allen, have pointed out that Soviet economic growth was indeed real, and that Western concern over Soviet power was well-founded. Furthermore, Marxist-Leninist communism presented itself as a potentially successful path toward independence from colonialism as well as industrial development within a single generation, all attractive ideas for many people living in the Third World. Extreme Islamism has few of these attributes and that is why it will ultimately fail even more spectacularly than Marxist-Leninist communism eventually did.
Perhaps bin Laden's real significance is that he provided us with a monster, a real monster, to slay. Now that the deed is done, perhaps we can have a more frank discussion of the most pressing issues underlying the problems of the Middle East such as energy policy, water rights, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the failure of neoliberal economics to provide full employment and an equitable distribution of the social product, and the plight of minority groups. Furthermore, with bin Laden gone, perhaps we can begin to wind up the War on Terror, retooling it as a matter for criminal justice and intelligence agencies but not conventional military power or nation-building. Most importantly, it is now time for Americans to abandon the dreams of empire so popular in neoconservative circles and to become a normal nation again. It is time to come home.