May 02, 2011

Just one week after WikiLeaks released its latest batch of cables, the Guantánamo Files, indicating that the movements of Osama bin Laden were a good deal better known than had been publicly admitted: United States President Barack Obama has declared that Osama bin Laden has been killed in a small, targetted operation.

During his 2008 election campaign, Obama had repeatedly vowed: "We will kill Osama bin Laden." In his first term of office, in the year leading up to the 10th anniversary of 9/11, he succeeded. Whatever else has been said about Obama: he kept that election promise.

Last week, Obama felt the intelligence was solid enough to act. Knowing the events he had set in motion, he was still able to act publicly and decisively in a dozen other ways, never once giving a hint of the stress he must have been feeling. He would have known that the operation was underway when he poked fun at himself and others at the Press Correspondents' Dinner. Between the time Obama set the operation in motion and late Sunday, when news organisations were first informed that an important announcement would be made: not one hint was given that something major was in the air.

As a leader, Osama bin Laden has long since lost any real relevance. As a symbol --

Within moments of the initial announcement, United States residents have been gathering outside the White House in a mood of wild celebration. I have no doubt that celebrations are breaking out in the streets all over the United States, even though the announcement came near midnight on a Sunday, Washington DC time.

(And suddenly I flash back to the condemnation of other celebrations during other deaths. Maybe some deaths may be necessary, much though I could wish otherwise. Certainly it was obvious from the beginning that Osama bin Laden's life was going to end no other way. But do we have to celebrate death? any death?)

As a slightly different kind of symbol: time will tell. (The Guantánamo Files contain rather more information than simply the movements of a few men; and even vigilence may not be sufficient.)

But suppose, just suppose, what might have been the outcome had the Guantánamo Files been released prior to November 2010?

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