A Few Afterthoughts on the Killing of Osama Bin Laden

“We recognize a person’s dignity or worth when we give him credit for what he has done. The amount we give is inversely proportional to the conspicuousness of the causes of his behavior. If we do not know why a person acts as he does, we attribute his behavior to him. We try to gain additional credit for ourselves by concealing the reasons why we behave in given ways or by claiming to have acted for less powerful reasons. We avoid infringing on the credit due to others by controlling them inconspicuously.”

These are lines from a summary paragraph in the chapter “Dignity” in B.F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity. This is the first time I have ever read Skinner, and I started reading it just because the New York Times recommended it, saying: “If you plan to read only one book this year [1971], this is probably the one you should choose!” Let alone reading, I have never heard Skinner’s name before, and I did not know that he was a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and that he was named as the most influential psychologist of the 20th century, until I read the Wikipedia entry on Skinner. Anyway, as I was reading the book, I was also thinking about the recent killing of Osama Bin Laden. When I came to this paragraph, it somehow seemed very appropriate to what I was thinking about the whole episode.

Perhaps we have not given Bin Laden the credit that he deserves. By giving the due credit, we might be able to recognize his dignity or worth. In no way I am discussing if Bin Laden has dignity or not, nor justify his actions, I am only trying to find something that is worth giving him some credit for, so as to recognize his dignity. Let me reiterate my attempt here is not to deify (or, demonize further) Bin Laden, but to make conspicuous something that deserves some credit. By demonizing or deifying someone, I reckon, we relegate that person out of the human sphere, and that is not fair.

What deserves credit then? I think because of Bin Laden we were able to see the patterns of power structures in the world. Although President Bush used the statement “you are either with us, or you are with the terrorists” in his September 21, 2001 address, and tried to persuade others to choose sides, it has yielded a false dilemma; meaning it proved that there was middle ground between the two options that Bush presented and many countries chose that option. Whether a country has responded to the call positively or not, we all know that countries are not innocent powers, and that every country has its own stakes and interests, and therefore they responded to the call accordingly. Even in that fashion, in the wake of “War on Terror,” we were able to mark the political alignments on the world stage.

More recently, a more nuanced understanding of the idea of global Islamist (‘Islamist’ describing the extremist and radical form of political Islam as practiced by some militant groups, as distinct from ‘Islamic,’ which describes the religion of Islam) insurgency has been another way of tracing the alignments. Consider what Robert Gates, the U.S. Secretary of Defense wrote in Foreign Affairs in January 2009: “What is dubbed the war on terror is, in grim reality, a prolonged, worldwide irregular campaign – – a struggle between forces of violent extremism and those of moderation…..” (You may read the full text at: A Balanced Strategy: Reprogramming the Pentagon for a New Age) The conflict is no longer presented as one between the U.S. and Islamist groups, but it is more between ‘forces of violent extremism and those of moderation.’ Put in that fashion, it presents a different kind of alignment of powers. But, I guess there should be a further nuance added to the theory of Global Islamist Insurgency. The war on terror is not a struggle between forces of violent extremism and those of moderation; it is rather a conflict between forces of extremism. Like forces of violent extremism, there are forces of moderation on either side of the conflict; and as much as the forces of violent extremism are for war, the forces of moderation are against war. Bin Laden is just one person, in one of the camps of extremism, and he is akin to the tip of the iceberg. There is no point in rejoicing over his death. For a peaceful world all forces of violent extremism need to reconsider their ways in which they are trying to address their concerns [vagueness intended]. Going back, my point is that we were able to learn the alignment of different powers due to the extremist activities in the name of peace in the Middle East. It is a good thing to learn the alignment of different powers because it would help in restructuring the goals and strategies of different countries involved in the alignments, and also it will be helpful in an informed prediction of the future for the rest of the world. Yet, again, let me remind you, I am not talking of the ethics of the war, or the means that the U.S. used to fight terrorism, or the stance of different countries, I am only stating what I see as a good thing that happened, and that is to be acknowledged.

On the day after Bin Laden was shot, as usual I went to the office where I work, and my boss, Melville, asked me what I thought about the killing of Bin Laden. In a sentence or two, I said what I have written in the previous paragraphs. For that my boss has reminded me of a very apt scientific analogy. He noted that what I described seemed something similar to a test particle entering a magnetic field. Until the charged test particle is introduced into the field, we might not necessarily know the alignment of the field, but with the charged particle we can understand the alignment and trace the polarity. I thought that was a very interesting analogy. Bin Laden (in fact, it could have been anyone) in that sense is that charged particle who was instrumental in making the lines of interaction along different poles clearer.

Before I conclude, I would like to present a couple of objections that might undermine my argument. One of the objections could be based on the suffering of thousands of people. It could be said that the amount of suffering is too great to justify any credit to Bin Laden. In other words, do we need that much suffering and loss of lives to understand the present political power structures? No! Indeed, there was too great an amount of suffering due to the war on terror, and I am not justifying suffering. I am only retrospectively considering the case of Bin Laden and the politics surrounding him. Only as an afterthought, I consider the exposition of the world political structures and the dynamics in the Middle East a good thing.

The second objection could be based on the philosophical treatment of the concept of dignity. Isn’t dignity intrinsic to human beings? Of course! As Brian Green presented in his reflections The Ethics of Killing Osama Bin Laden , like you and me, Bin Laden is made in the image of God, and still is human, although deeply corrupted. In a similar vein of thought, Bin Laden has dignity, and I don’t deny that. Dignity is intrinsic, but its recognition seems to be extrinsic. Therefore, it is important that we give due credit to him to recognize that dignity or worth, as Skinner might argue. That being said, if we start giving credit to what Bin Laden has done – I mean all the bad things that he did, would that effect his dignity or worth? I leave it for your further consideration.

In conclusion, in this brief reflection, I have tried to remove the infringements on the credit due to Bin Laden by making them conspicuous. I might have failed in convincing you that there is some good that is due to Bin Laden, but the fact of the matter is that in the light of the world story, it might be of significance, at least at a later stage. By pointing fingers at Bin Laden, we might be able to personify evil, but we should be careful not to do that because we all are evil too!

PS: My sincere thanks to Lindsey and Melville for their comments on my earlier draft.        

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About Chaitanya Motupalli

Thinking Being....Evolving, I guess! View all posts by Chaitanya Motupalli

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