by Barry Edelson


The Tighter the Grip, the Looser the Grasp

Bin Laden and the Paradox of Power

A few days after September 11, 2001, I walked out the front door of my house in suburban New York at the exact moment when a fighter jet passed directly overhead. It was at once startling and reassuring. The scrambling of military aircraft was a frightful complement to the sickening smell of the distant fire that suffused the air in those anxious days and weeks after the attacks. But at the same time it was painfully obvious, even in those early moments of the post-9/11 world we have since been forced to inhabit, that we were quite safe from the most dreadful actions that an enemy could take against us. However many lives the terrorists could claim or damage they could inflict in a single atrocity, or even in a series of well-timed incidents, they were incapable of sustaining a significant military confrontation, let alone invading another country. Weakness is precisely the reason why terrorists resort to "asymmetrical warfare". Al Qaeda was not the Soviet Union, whose tanks and missiles made the prospect of foreign occupation a somewhat more plausible, if unlikely, scenario. As the reverberations of the jet's engines rattled the windows and shook the trees, I felt a palpable sense of relief to realize that Americans in my lifetime would never have to endure a sustained aerial bombardment. (Would that the suffering peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan could say the same.) We were just too strong. If we were to suffer any lasting damage to our society or civilization from the proponents of Islamic fascism, we would have to inflict it upon ourselves.

And so we have. The pathetic image of Osama bin Laden watching television in his concrete hideaway in Pakistan makes only too clear how outsized our response to 9/11 has been in relation to the actual threat that we faced. It comes as no surprise that the terrorist-in-chief continued to hatch plots to attack his enemies, but of what did his myriad fantasies of world domination amount to in the end? For 10 years we have progressively curtailed our liberties in the vain pursuit of "security". We have dutifully removed our shoes and belts at the airport, and re-packed our luggage to accommodate the ever-shifting regulations; we have surrendered our privacy on the telephone, the Internet and even the public library; we have dispensed with outrage at the extrajudicial detention and rendition of prisoners, and swallowed our aversion to their torture; we have exhausted the nation's treasury and offered up our young by the thousands in a reflexive, martial solution to a problem with multifarious causes; and we have squandered the unity born of our national mourning in favor of the basest of political tendencies, namely patriotism. And we debased ourselves, our forefathers and the revered Constitution in all of these ways, not to make ourselves safer, but so that no government should ever have to answer the question, "How could you have let this happen again?"

Let this not be interpreted as opposition to the struggle against religious extremism, or belittling to its victims throughout the world or to the countless men and women, civilian and military, who have sincerely and with great personal sacrifice fought to defend the nation. The ambitions of bin Laden were indeed dangerous to our individual persons and profoundly corrupting to the society that spawned him, and to humanity in general. To this extent, they needed to be confronted aggressively, and justice demanded to be served. But bin Laden's delusions of greatness never constituted a mortal threat to the United States of America, or to any of the other sovereign nations of the West that dared to stand against zealotry and barbarism.

After all of the years of searching for him and planning for his capture or killing, his death is striking in its smallness. The relief that follows the demise of a cruel and despised leader is often accompanied by a powerful sense of disproportion: how could a single person, so easily extinguished at long last, have managed to cause so much pain for so long? Once gone, the despot's grip on power ebbs instantly, and his fearsome control appears to have been too insubstantial to have been a source of so much anguish and trouble. We need only recall the bloody, disfigured corpses of other vile leaders — Ceaușescu, Saddam Hussein — to be bewildered by the central paradox of power: how can the apparatus of terror be wielded so effectively by what turns out to be, in the end, a bag of bones? And if power is held in so tenuous a grasp, how does it manage to make the world cower before it?

We will no doubt be asking this question about the end of Qaddafi's reign of terror before long, and Assad's not long after. Any government that resorts to shooting unarmed demonstrators in the streets, only to find that the population is not merely unafraid but stirred ever more passionately to arms, is ultimately doomed. The two denominators common to all tyrannical individuals are the ability to instill fear, and the inability to find anyone who will tell them the truth of their situation. It beggars belief to suppose that al Qaeda was fundamentally different from other human organizations in this way, and that its senior officers never once imagined a future without their cloistered leader. There must surely have been those in bin Laden's inner circle who wondered to themselves, even if they dared not say it aloud, whether the old man was really up to the chase any more, and what would happen after he was out of the picture.

The more important question for the world, however, is not whether his band of acolytes will wither into irrelevance, but whether the many undeclared adherents of bin Laden's creed will now recognize the man for what he was: a vain and self-important megalomaniac, a small person with a cramped vision of man and society, as unworthy of veneration as he was of a dignified burial. And the enduring question for America must be why we were ever so keen to relinquish our liberties for the sake of his miserable life.

May 14, 2011


The nature of power in human affairs is explored in more depth in the essay Power: Why It Exists, Who Has It, Why It Affects Everything.


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