The Washington Post

Opinion Focus with Eugene Robinson: Bin Laden's Death

May 03, 2011

What does the death of Osama Bin Laden mean? Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson says Americans feel as though we turned a page on Sunday night. Discuss his latest column and more with him in Tuesday's Q&A.

Hi, everybody. Well, there's basically just one topic that anybody wants to talk about today, and that's the killing of Osama bin Laden. I went down to the White House on Sunday night to talk to people in the cheering crowd, and I kept hearing the view, or the hope, that this marks the turning of a page. Let's begin.

Eugene- I must admit that I am conflicted about the death of bin Laden. Not so much that is he is no longer a threat but more about the "celebration" of his death. While I understand it, especially those who were personally affected by it, the cheering feels, well, unseemly. Should we be celebrating killing like this even when it's arguably justified?

I'm cheering. The man was a mass murderer -- not a henchman, but the leader who ordered the 9/11 attacks, among other atrocities. I don't usually celebrate death, but I'm making an exception.

The previous administration is out there crowing about that it was torture that coughed up the first seed that blossomed into finally locating bin Laden. How true?

There will be much argument about this. The first kernel of information, it's being reported, seems to have come from a detainee while he was being held and, presumably, tortured in a secret CIA prison. Other crucial information seems to have come from Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, but not from his waterboarding; it apparently came out much later during conventional, and legal, interrogation. But the argument will never be settled, because it's impossible to prove that information obtained through torture could never have been extracted without torture.

Was Pakistan incompetent or lying to the U.S.? Either we're dealing with an extraordinarily incompetent military and army and intelligence agency, or at some level they were complicit. In either case, Pakistan is neither ally nor partner.

Bin Laden's residence was literally just down the road from the Pakistani military academy. It is implausible, if not inconceivable, that Pakistani intelligence and/or the military could have been completely unaware that bin Laden was living just 35 miles from the capital of Islamabad. Were government officials kept in the dark, or were they in on it, too?

While I found the celebrations on the death of OBL tacky, I understand them and wish bin Laden a speedy trip to Hell. And certainly, anyone who lost someone at the WTC, Pentagon or PA can hopefully find some measure of peace, closure or satisfaction. What bugs me is the scene of what look like college kids, celebrating as if there sports team won. We are talking about a deadly business where thousands of service members have died, as well as thousands of civilians on the 9/11 attacks, and oh yeah, the "collateral damage" throughout the world. These college kids could be classed as "elites" most of whom will never wear their country's uniform by choice let alone be drafted. I think we are in real trouble when there is a big disconnect between civilians and our all-volunteer military, that get cheered on as if the Hoyas won. It seems that disconnect has been growing at least since the post-Vietnam era. Also this war on terror has asked for little sacrifice from most of our civilians, not like WWII when the country was basically fully mobilized for war, and without a draft as in Korea and Vietnam, there is not the same spreading of pain throughout the populace. Anyway, instead of celebrating, I would challenge those celebrating to step up and do something.

I agree about the disconnect. Your premise about the celebrations Sunday night, however, is not quite right. Yes, there were a lot of college students. But the crowd at the White House was demographically diverse -- I saw all ages and races, and I'll bet there were all income groups as well.

I'd like your comments on Ezra Klein's article today, "Bin Laden's War Against the US Economy." Didn't we pretty much play into al-Qaeda's hands over the last 10 years by nearly bankrupting ourselves? Or do you see it differently?

I see it a bit differently, in that the big mistakes were of our nation's own choosing: Invading Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11; and cutting taxes rather than raising enough revenue to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is interesting to note, as few have commented about, that the raid of Bin Laden's compound also yielded some information. We do not yet know what information was obtained, and presumably much of it we will not know (at least for sometime), yet may we be cautiously optimistic that seizing the records of the leader will yield information about where and who the followers are? We can hope.

We're getting mixed signals here. There are reports that "significant" information was collected. We also know that bin Laden took great pains to avoid being a target of electronic surveillance -- no phone line, for example. Apparently he communicated solely by courier. But maybe he was convinced that the compound itself was safe.

I have been surprised at the lack of "Death to America" rallies in response to his killing. Even Hamas' response seemed muted. Have things truly changed in the Muslim world ?

An awful lot has indeed changed. There's a sense of new possibility throughout the Arab world, and it's about self-determination, not "Death to America."

I see a lot of criticism coming from people who watched parts of the celebrations on TV, and none of them seem to line up with the experiences of people who were actually at any of the events. Sure, college kids might have rushed a news camera to cheer in front of them, but there were literally thousands of people who were not doing that, and who were really much more somber. And even for the ones who rushed the cameras--so what? I liked Alexandra Petri's blog post today about her generation seeing OBL as a Big Bad since childhood, and now they're glad he's been taken out even if they have a more nuanced worldview now than they did as children.


No sooner had Osama bin Laden been killed, and the right was saying that this could only have been acheived because of Bush/Cheney policy on interrogation. So what. Obama is the one who made the gutsy call to take him out just as Obama said he would doing the campaign that if reliable intelligence showed Osama to be in Pakistan, he as presdident would give the order to take him out. Thanks, Mr. Robinson.

Some conservatives have been forthright in praising President Obama for his gutsy call, just as some liberals -- like me -- are being forthright in noting that this lead was first developed under President Bush.

I've heard both that Bin Laden was only in the compound a few days before the raid, suggesting he was still moving around, and that he had been there since they started watching the compound last August. What have you heard about how long he was in Abbottabad.

I've seen a quote attributed to a U.S. official estimating that bin Laden had lived there for five or six years, and elsewhere I saw a report that perhaps the entourage had just been there for five or six months. I suppose it's possible that this might have been one of several residences. Maybe we'll get a more definitive answer as details emerge.

Being close to military school & base probably desensitized OBL and the home's occupants to the drone of helicopters approaching. so that's one really good thing about them being in that place at that time that worked out for us brilliantly as the Brits would say. Also: million dollar home? I don't see it. Someone's been drinking the hyperbole koolaid again and not doing actual reportage. Keep up the great work. I always look forward to your columns, chats and appearances on broadcast media. PS: thanks for also prodding me listen again to the Samuel Barber Adagio for Strings one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever created.

Thanks. And yes, if I had a million dollars to spend on a house in rural Pakistan, I think I could do better.

I have to wonder if this is one of the best or worst decisions made in this event. Surely, we can expect conspiracy theories; but we get those for every moon landing, assassination and Hawaiian birth. Could there have been another way for the body of bin Laden to be handed over/disposed of?

Probably not. Think about it: Where would you put it? His Saudi citizenship was revoked, so the Saudis didn't want it. No government would be eager to create some kind of shrine where jihadists would make pilgrimage. I think burial at sea was almost certainly the best option.

George Will, in his column today, says that finding and killing bin Laden was the result of police action and intelligence rather than the outcome of our military presence. He even credits John Kerry for expressing those ideas during his Presidential bid--ideas that earned Kerry much scorn from the right. What are your thoughts on military vs police action?

I think Will is almost right. I wrote at the time that the Bush administration went way too far with the "war" metaphor. But it's simplistic, I think, to say that al-Qaeda's terrorist violence could have been handled exclusively through police work. Remember that bin Laden was operating with the support and protection of the recognized government of Afghanistan.

I'm very encouraged by the large amount of, especially machine-readable, data recovered at the mansion in which bin Laden was killed. What do you think the chances are that at least some of this new information will lead to further US dismantling of the various al Qaeda enclaves operating around the world? Even if we're not rid of the extreme Islamist (actually Wahabist) lunacy he promoted, has this blasphemous (to Islam) movement finally been dealt a serious blow with the "head of the snake" having been cutoff?

I hope so. As you point out, what bin Laden preached is a perversion of Islam. If authorities around the world are rolling up al-Qaeda networks as we speak, that's terrific. But I kind of doubt it. Al-Qaeda had already become more of a franchise operation, with various units -- like Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen -- acting pretty much independently, according to intelligence analysts. So cutting off the head of the snake might not be the coup de grace.

The night of the announcement of Bin Laden's death, the networks mentioned how much Osama and 9/11 changed our lives, from the Patriot Act to the TSA invasive pat downs. Do you think his death will cause a reevaluation and perhaps a rollback of the invasions of privacy we've endured in the name of safety?

I hope it lifts a psychological burden that has, at times, clouded our judgment. I hope it lets us see clearly the tradeoffs we've made in the name of security, and lets us make better decisions.

Gene, I am of your generation, and I read and listen to you regularly. But I did not have the "We won!" reaction that many had on Sunday night. I feel appalled and sad, while also relieved that he is no longer at large. But why was this a "kill mission," and how can we be proud of that? I don't see that as "bringing him to justice," which generally implies capture and criminal proceedings. The burial at sea seems wildly inappropriate, as well as a setup for conspiracy theorists. Whether Saudi Arabia's government likes it or not, he was their citizen. And their Wahhabist fanatics bankrolled his enterprise, whether the SA government wishes to acknowledge that or not. We killed him as a monstrous murderer, which I believe he was, but then we gave him religious rites - what? There seem to be some very inconsistent decisions made.

I have argued, and will continue to argue, for due process for "war on terrorism" detainees at Guantanamo and elsewhere. I've argued, and will continue to argue, against torture -- whether or not the first germ of information that led to bin Laden's whereabouts came from a torture session. The information could have been obtained, through skillful interrogation, without torture. But I'm unreserved in my happiness at the demise of Osama bin Laden. For this mass murderer, I make an exception.

If he indeed thought his compound was safe doesn't that imply that he had some assurances from the Pakistani govt that he was, indeed, safe?

It seems to me that if you're the most-wanted fugitive in the world, and you decide to live outside a town that's home to a slew of military officers -- and right down the road from the Pakistani military academy -- then either you're totally nuts or you think you have protection.

Gene, do you believe that this action will finally put to bed the notion of Obama as Carter? As recently as last week, Republicans were calling him weak on defense and slamming him for doing PR moves like releasing his birth certificate instead of fixing our debt. Come to find out, he was taking care of business. Does the silliness of last week now enlightened by what Mr. Obama was really working on hurt the GOP?

I think it pretty much ends the weak-on-defense line of attack. GOP candidates who pursue it will likely just hurt themselves.

So we killed this extremist. In the process, I wonder how many future terrorists we created by our tactics. Any thoughts?

If you asked me that question about, say, drone attacks that destroy whole neighborhoods and kill civilians, I'd say you had a point. But this is the guy who murdered thousands of Americans. It was a surgical strike. Bin Laden knew that Sunday would come someday, and he is welcome to his martyrdom.


And with that, folks, my time is up. See you again next week, same time, same station.

In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
Archive of Eugene Robinson's columns
Recent Chats
  • Next: