It’s hard to believe it’s been seven years since the attack on the World Trade Center. Since then, I’ve found love, gotten married, finished college, become a resident of Canada, and completed four years of grad school. The United States has gone to war in Afghanistan and overturned the Taliban there, gone to war in Iraq and overturned that regime, and is currently trying to create functional democracies in both countries. I don’t know if any of this would have surprised me, if you had told me seven years ago that it would come to pass.
But, why haven’t we caught Osama Bin Laden yet?
Sometimes, when I am driving down the road, I will have the sudden urge to swerve the car into oncoming traffic and cause an accident, probably die, kill strangers… I think most people have these impulses- there is something so horrible about the fact of mortality that draws us to confront it, imagine it, yearn to enact it: I think this is what Freud was talking about with the “death instinct”. And yet, none of actually follow these impulses because they’re so horrible and insane, and on some level we desperately want to remain alive, as do nearly all living things.
So the act committed in 2001 is still unthinkable: to immolate oneself in the hopes of killing innocent strangers requires some sort of overwhelming death instinct, some hatred for the flesh and the world of the living, that just eludes me, and which I think should elude all living beings. We should want to remain alive. To take that comment as a critique on religion would be fair, but it’s also a very sad critique.
And, besides, the WTC massacre was a psychotic act; it was irrational and meaningless outside of a diseased mind. J.G. Ballard has noted something that has also occurred to me: the World Trade Center is now, after the destruction, remembered as a symbol of world finance; but for most of us it was just two big buildings in New York that were nicer looking on the inside than the outside. It didn't mean anything. It became a symbol as we tried to add sense to a meaningless act. But it was ultimately irrational. And, everything Osama bin Laden has said in the last seven years has proven to me that he is a psychotic. Clearly he is not a raving lunatic, but the bizarre connections he draws, the paranoid delusions, and the fact that his “strategy” is so far from reality- attack the nation with the largest army in the world and they will surrender to you- as to be funny. But you’d die trying to laugh.
So, why haven’t we caught Osama bin Laden yet?
I remember, after the event, the nation mourning together. It is a strange thing this need for collective experience; people came together to mourn Princess Diana in much the same way. We forget that the “national community”, while it is a fiction, is usually a relatively benign one. People generally want to be part of a larger family; their empathy is fairly impressive among mammals. And in the shadow of two vanishing towers, their need for connection was understandable. This was before the nationalism really made itself felt.
But, some part of me understood by the evening of September 11th, that the jets were already being fired up. I understood that this meant war, especially after the Taliban refused to turn over al-Qaida. Yes, some of the kids at my university were opposed to any war ever; but most of us realized that it was retaliatory, at least in Afghanistan. I supported the war, quietly and with a sense that any war is a tragic last resort.
So, why haven’t we caught Osama bin Laden yet?
I think, when I saw the towers melting like roman candles in the New York skyline, that I knew that these images would fuel wars, and that they would be long wars. But, I never really thought they would become stock images in campaign ads for the next seven years. I never really imagined that we would never really get around to discussing any of this seriously, instead talking about Britney and pigs in lipstick until we die laughing. I never thought that the wars themselves would become campaign ads- threaten Iraq, or Iran, or Russia, or whoever works whenever people ask about what the fuck happened in Afghanistan. Promise to chase Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell, when you’ve already balked at chasing him into Pakistan.* Fail at waging war, fail at managing the economy, fail at governance or upholding civil liberties, fail at disaster management; so long as you still excel at running for office! It is unthinkable to me that any rational person could take any of these people seriously when they talk about this as “the defining crisis of our time”, but take their own responsibility so cavalierly.
And why haven’t we caught Osama bin Laden yet?
Seven years later, the United States seems to be winning an unpopular war in Iraq and losing a popular one in Afghanistan. Bush has admitted that he really doesn’t think about bin Laden that much, seemingly the one thing he would be thinking about. The war in Iraq seems to have achieved its strategic goals: Bush was reelected, McCain will likely be elected. And, thanks to the miracles of medicine, far more of our soldiers are coming home, alive and crippled, than are coming back dead. This is a small blessing. But, when I consider whether or not any of this was worth it, what those soldiers who died and those office workers who died might have wanted, when I even wonder to myself if the last seven years was a measured response to an act of war, or a complete and total overreaction to an isolated act of lunatics, I still come back to the same question:
Why haven’t we caught Osama bin Laden yet?
* (Update: Minutes after posting this, I found this news story revealing that the White House has indeed authorized military raids into Pakistan. After waiting nearly seven years. Anyway, it's good news, since this is where al-Qaida is most likely located.)