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Deep Impact

Understanding the symbolism of Osama bin Laden's death in the history of American democracy.

Relentlessness is good. Relentlessness has a philosophical resonance, which everyone intuitively understands. The war between Al Qaeda and the United States has always rested on a dispute over the meaning of history. Al Qaeda has always believed that God wishes the resurrection of the ancient Islamic caliphate. And Al Qaeda has always regarded America, with its Christian origins, as the ultimate obstacle to the resurrection of the caliphate. Al Qaeda’s militants have always believed that, as the representative of God’s will, they will ultimately win. Al Qaeda has therefore called for a stubborn and even eternal struggle—the kind of struggle that might lead earnest and idealistic people to agree to commit suicide on Al Qaeda’s behalf.

America, however, has also been stubborn. Ten years, compared to eternity, is nothing. Still, relative to the lifetime of a human being, ten years is not, in fact, nothing. For ten years the United States has been relentless. And now that America can boast of its achievement, the American relentlessness has suddenly become eloquent, and this is more than good. It is crucial.

The United States adheres, after all, to its own theory of history, even if most of us do not like to acknowledge anything of the sort. In our own liberal and democratic theory of history, doctrines like Al Qaeda’s are doomed to defeat. In our estimation, the mad and fantastical doctrine about resurrecting an ancient caliphate is comparable to other doctrines that we have encountered over the last century—the doctrine about resurrecting the Roman Reich in an Aryan version or the doctrine about resurrecting the ancient Russian peasant communes in the form of a proletarian Soviet civilization. We liberals and democrats look on doctrines of that sort as reactionary protests against the authentic march of progress, and as nothing more than reactionary protests. And we believe that, if we struggle sufficiently, if we are relentless enough, the reactionary protests will go down to defeat.

We do not like to speak in the language of history and progress. We know that invocations of history and progress can all too easily turn into a rhetoric of self-satisfied superstition. Still, this way of speaking sometimes addresses a reality. And sometimes, at moments of crisis and at moments of exhilaration, we discover that our truest beliefs come to the fore, and we do speak in a language of this sort. This is what President Obama did on Sunday night when, having announced the killing of Osama bin Laden, he concluded his speech by quoting from the Pledge of Allegiance—a statement of faith in the strength and future of liberty and equality, which is to say, the strength and future of democratic civilization.

Those concluding phrases in Obama’s speech were a moment of eloquent truth. The phrases made clear that our military and intelligence agents have hunted down bin Laden not just because he was a bandit, but because we uphold our own doctrine, which is the doctrine of democracy. Bin Laden and most Americans have always been in agreement on one point, after all, which is the question of what the war has been about. The war has been a struggle over principle. It has been a struggle between the Islamist fantasy of founding a theocracy versus the democratic principle of promoting and defending a reality of democratic freedom.


Everyone already understands that bin Laden’s death does not, in military terms, amount to anything huge. Nor does it reveal some overwhelming military superiority on our part. Our intelligence agents have had a lucky break; our military people have succeeded in acting efficiently, although they could have blundered instead, as has happened before; our true Pakistani allies have succeeded in deceiving our false Pakistani allies, who were bin Laden’s allies. All of these developments could easily have gone the other way—as happened, for instance, when the unlucky Jimmy Carter, back in 1980, ordered the American military to rescue the American hostages in Tehran, and our own helicopter crashed into our own plane. Let us salute, then, the efficient military and intelligence people who have conducted this most recent of raids, and let us salute the White House that has organized the raid—even as we recognize that, given a few unlucky breaks, events could have turned out badly, instead of well.

But let us also recognize that, for all the chanciness in a raid like this, the symbolism is huge and irreversible. And, since the present war is ultimately a war of ideas, let us not fail to recognize that symbolism is entirely to the point. The symbolism of this present raid says: History is not on bin Laden’s side. History is on the side of democracy and freedom. History will not be deterred. Yes, we should ask ourselves: Does it make sense to speak about abstractions like “history”? Does the relentlessness of a manhunt contain any deeper meanings at all? But there is an answer to these questions. The abstractions express a meaning if we choose to endow them with meaning. Ten years of relentless man-hunting suggest that we have chosen to do so.

Obama’s speech on Sunday night was magnificent—although I wish he had mentioned the Iraq war, which, once we had overthrown Saddam, became a war directed largely against Al Qaeda, specifically the branch that was led by bin Laden’s man in Mesopotamia, Abu Musab Al Zarqawi. The war against Zarqawi and his movement became, for a while, a central front in the larger war between Al Qaeda’s version of Islamism and America’s version of liberal democracy.

But I am quibbling about the past. The president spoke eloquently enough about America’s victory over bin Laden himself. The symbolism is unmistakable. The fantasy caliphate is not going to be created. The power of a democratic republic cannot be denied. That was the message. We are winning. Al Qaeda is losing. This is not just a matter of circumstance or luck. We have reason to bang our drums, and people all over the world, and especially in the Muslim world, have reason to respond with a feeling of hope for themselves and for everyone else. Or rather, we are right to believe this, and other people are right to believe likewise, so long as we continue to choose to be relentless.

Paul Berman is a contributing editor for The New Republic. This article originally ran in the May 26, 2011, issue of the magazine.

Articles on the death of Osama bin Laden: Dalton Fury on the near miss at Tora Bora; Lawrence F. Kaplan asks if we'll overestimate the importance of bin Laden's death; Heather Hurlburt on the reasons the U.S. was able to kill bin Laden; James Downie on the legal justifications; Leon Wieseltier on the celebration in Lafayette Park; Jonathan Kay on the emergence of conspiracy theories; Sean Wilentz asks if bin Laden's demise will loosen the grip paranoid politics has on America; David Greenberg on the only satisfying resolution possible to the story of 9/11; Louis Klarevas asks if the loss of bin Laden will hasten Al Qaeda's demise; Jonathan Chait on what bin Laden's death means; a photo essay on how America responded to the news of bin Laden's death.

TNR Classics on bin Laden and Al Qaeda: Peter Bergen on the Bush administration's failed attempt to capture bin Laden at Tora Bora, on the troubling merger of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, on Al Qaeda's revolt against bin Laden (co-authored with Paul Cruickshank), how bin Laden beat George W. Bush, and on bin Laden's activities before 9/11; Nicholas Schmidle on what the murder of a bin Laden confidant says about Pakistan; Michael Crowley on Robert Gates; David Cole on Obama's war on terror.