The following article appeared in the May, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone, just after the killing by U.S. Special Forces of terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden. It is reprinted here to mark the tenth anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Osama bin Laden’s actions, and our reactions to them, have defined my adult life. I was in New York City on September 11th, 2001, a senior in college. After the towers collapsed, I walked 95 blocks to get as close to Ground Zero as possible, so I could see first-hand the destruction that would define our future. By the time I got to Baghdad four years later, very few Americans believed that the people we were fighting in Iraq posed a threat to the United States. Even the military press didn’t bother lying about it anymore, referring to our enemies as “insurgents” rather than “terrorists.” A woman I loved was killed in Baghdad in January 2007 — Al Qaeda in Iraq took credit for it — and my younger brother fought for 15 months as an infantry platoon leader, earning a Bronze Star. Other friends, both American and Iraqi, suffered their own losses: homes, limbs, loved ones.
By the fall of 2008, when I had moved on to Afghanistan, bin Laden and Al Qaeda were barely footnotes to what we were doing there. “It’s not about bin Laden,” a military intelligence official told me. “It’s about fixing the mess.” This added to the growing despair Americans felt about the war: If it wasn’t about bin Laden, then what the fuck was it about? Why were we fighting wars that took us no closer to the man responsible for unleashing the horror of September 11th? A top-ranking military official told me last year that he didn’t think we’d ever get bin Laden. Yet each time our presidents and generals told us why we were still fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, they always used bin Laden and September 11th as an excuse. As long as they insisted on fighting these wars we didn’t need to fight, the wound to the American psyche wasn’t allowed to heal.
Right from the start, the idea of the War on Terror was a fuzzy one at best. We were promised there would be no “battlefields and beachheads,” as President George W. Bush put it. It would be a secret war, conducted mostly in the dark, no holds barred. And that’s how it might have played had we got bin Laden early on, dead or alive. But that’s not what happened. Instead, we went on a rampage in the full light of day. We got our battlefields and beachheads after all. Kabul, Kandahar, Baghdad, Fallujah, Ramadi, Najaf, Mosul, Kirkuk, Basra, Kabul and Kandahar again — the list went on and on. We couldn’t find bin Laden, so we went after anyone who looked like him, searching for other monsters to put down: the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
This article appears in the May 26, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue will be available on newsstands and in the online archive May 19.
In the end, bin Laden got the carnage he had hoped to unleash. Nearly 3,000 Americans were killed on September 11th. Since then, 6,022 American servicemen and women have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more than 42,000 have been wounded. More than 3,000 allied soldiers have died, along with some 1,200 private contractors, aid workers and journalists. Most of the killing didn’t take place in battles — it was in the dirty metrics of suicide bombs, death squads, checkpoint killings, torture chambers and improvised explosive devices. Civilians on their way to work or soldiers driving around in circles, looking for an enemy they could seldom find. We may never know how many innocent civilians were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan, but estimates suggest that more than 160,000 have died so far. Al Qaeda, by contrast, has lost very few operatives in the worldwide conflagration — perhaps only “scores,” as President Obama said this month. In truth, Al Qaeda never had many members to begin with. Not since Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke Ferdinand, setting off World War I, has a conspiracy undertaken by so few been felt by so many.
After learning of bin Laden’s death, I congratulated my friends in the military and the intelligence community, tweeted my appreciation to President Obama and his team, then sat back and listened to the horns honking outside my apartment in Washington. I thought of all the dead, and what adding this fucker’s name to the list actually means. My hope — and it is not one I have much hope in — is that our political leaders will use bin Laden’s death to put an end to the madness he provoked. Withdraw our remaining troops from Iraq, a country that never posed a threat to us. End the war in Afghanistan, where we will spend $120 billion this year to prevent the country from becoming a hideout for Al Qaeda. As bin Laden’s death makes clear, our true enemies will always find a hideout, no matter how many people we torture and bribe and kill. For the past 10 years, we have used the name Osama bin Laden to justify our wars. Perhaps, now that he is dead, we can use it in the cause of peace.
This story is from the May 26th, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.