Wednesday marked the one-year anniversary of the death of Osama bin Laden when Navy SEALs stormed his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, killing him and four others.
The strategic and crucial operation, conducted at the order of President Barack Obama, brought a degree of closure to what had been a decade of anger, uncertainty and misplaced vengeance. One year on, and despite a continued military presence in Afghanistan, references to the “War on Terror” seem few and far between in today’s media and political rhetoric, leading one to question whether said war has concluded, and whether it should have ever truly existed.
Indeed, the Sept. 11 attack is perhaps the most contemptible strike at a civilian population that we will see in our lifetime. The international community largely supported retribution on those responsible and did little to stand in the United States’ way in mounting its response.
Where discord has arisen, however, is in the nature of the retaliation, namely the designation of the response as a “War on Terror.” The philosophy behind this choice of phrase, something Nicholas Lemann described in the New York Times as “the difference between a response and a doctrine,” has, from day one, undeniably complicated the effort to address anti-American extremism and maintain the sympathies of other nations.
In the first instance, the act marked a truly unconventional application of the term “war.” What was previously understood to involve opposing nations, or at least an identifiable enemy, complete with a definitive battleground and a recognizable point of decisive victory became an obscured and uncertain mission against an unknown and hidden enemy, fought not by conventional means and with little consideration of international law.
The second mistake was in the use of the broad term “terror.” The very word has inherent complexities beyond the understanding of even its most seasoned experts, not to mention its existence as a practice in every corner of the world. Declaring war on terror immediately generated problems for the 9/11 response that would prove to be costly, and make victory all the more difficult to determine.
A decade on it seems that definition has little more clarity, and despite causing serious damage to al-Qaida’s central operations and leadership, this success has been balanced by a deteriorated reputation abroad, a massive war-induced fiscal deficit and a military spread too thin in an attempt to eradicate a global problem. If war was the only perceivable outcome, it should at the very least have been declared on al-Qaida, a somewhat more definable enemy, rather than “every terrorist group of global reach,” as was expressed by President George W. Bush to Congress just nine days after the 9/11 attacks. This would have greatly reduced the aforementioned problems and made victory much more clearly definable and achievable.
As well as the responsibilities a war on all terrorist groups created, it possessed a critical flaw in logic: that terrorism, as an idea, a strategy, or a sporadic phenomenon, is not something that can be eradicated. The Zealots, a millenarian Jewish sect, employed terrorist methods against the Roman Empire during its occupation of what is now Israel from A.D. 66-73. Its activities involved assassinating Roman officials or sympathetic Jews, and even poisoning Jerusalem’s water supply. Such groups have existed for thousands of years, turning to acts or threats of violence to remedy a perceived political or social injustice. With this in mind, it was either na