The Ghost of Osama Bin Laden and the Spirit of 9/11

Some of the Jewish outrage against President Obama stems from the “black vs. white” outlook that is a legacy of 9/11. But bin Laden, ironically, could very well get the U.S. president reelected.

1. You can watch the photos and the films of the September 11 terrorist attacks for the thousandth time and still be shocked to your very core. Even after the countless reconstructions of that day’s events, you are still jolted when American Airlines 11 hits the North Tower, still astonished as United Airlines 175 slams into the South Tower, still shocked by the crash of American Airlines 77 into the western wall of the Pentagon, still overwhelmed by the courage of the passengers on United 93 over Pennsylvania, still unable to completely comprehend the ghastly yet nonetheless amazing collapse of the towers, one after the other, even though you’ve read the technical explanations over and over again.

The images still hit you in the gut, as if they were taken only yesterday. This is the way the world will look on the day it begins to end, when irrational evil triumphs, when foundations crumble, when civilization collapses, when law and order and security and wellbeing are suddenly usurped by unspeakable horror and immeasurable terror.

In this regard, and in this regard only, an elderly Jew might be excused for a recurring association with, of all things, a Nazi concentration camp, where malevolent barbarism also reigned supreme. There, of course, the horror was only exposed after the fact, and only never truly caught on film. Here, the pictures of the billowing smoke over southern Manhattan, with the poor desperate souls jumping out of smoke filled windows to their death, are like a preview of a hell that’s still to come.

2. Close to 7,000 American soldiers have been killed and 50,000 wounded in the wars in Afghanistan, which was a direct and logical consequence of the September 11 attacks, and the one in Iraq, for which it was only a pretext. This week, the Pentagon announced the death of four more American soldiers in Afghanistan, including Shane W. Cantu, 20, of Corunna, Michigan; Alec R. Terwiske, 21, of Dubois, Indiana; Jose Montenegro Jr. of Houston, Texas; and Thalia S. Ramirez, 28, of San Antonio, Texas. May their memories be blessed, as we say in Israel.

The U.S., together with a few of its allies, have made enormous sacrifices and invested immense efforts in waging the war against Al-Qaida and its offshoots. According to several estimates, by the time they are over, the U.S. will have spent over 5 trillion dollars on its military campaigns.

But the relative quiet that these efforts have produced is one of the reasons why the world can choose to ignore it. As this week’s poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs revealed, Americans themselves do not believe that the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan have enhanced their security, a peculiar finding for a country that was overwhelmed 11 years ago by the worst terrorist attack in human history but has enjoyed over a decade of tranquility ever since.

3. For many Americans, President George Bush’s November 6, 2001 maxim “either you’re with us or you’re against us” in the war on terror was interpreted to spell an ongoing mistrust of Muslims, collectively and individually. Ironically, as the New York Times reminded its readers recently, it was Bush himself who, six days after 9/11, went out of his way to remind Americans of the need to respect Islam and not to harass American Muslims because of their religion alone. “This act of leadership and statesmanship, however, has all but vanished from the national collective memory. It deserves, instead, to be noted and heeded and esteemed,” the Times wrote.

But attitudes are changing, as the Chicago Council poll reveals: over 60% of Americans viewed Islamic fundamentalism as a mortal threat to America 10 years ago, but that number has now slipped to 40%, and it is least pronounced among people under 30, only 23% of which define Islam as “the enemy”.

4. While Ronald Reagan based his rationale for strategic relations with Israel on its serving as a forward anti-Soviet outpost during the Cold War, after 9/11 a new affinity was born between the two countries, one in which Israel was elevated to the status not only of an ally but of a brother-in-arms that had borne the brunt of and learned to cope with Islamic terrorism for decades. People no longer remember that both before and immediately after 9/11, then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was concerned that President Bush would “throw Israel under the bus”, as the saying goes these days, in order to win the support of moderate Arab countries in the upcoming “war on terror.” But Bush went the other way, embracing Israel as an ally and refusing to press it into negotiating with the Palestinians against its will.

The belief that this should now be the way of the world fuels some of the Jewish outrage against Bush’s successor, President Barack Obama – along with the suspicion of his Muslim origins, of course. 9/11 instilled in many Americans, including many Jews, a sense that the world is now divided into black and white, good vs. evil, us vs. them and that “the only thing the Arabs understand is force”, as the now shunned Israeli saying went.

Obama’s more nuanced approach and his attempt at a more evenhanded attitude offended Jews because it seemed to run contrary to their view of the legacy of 9/11. The extent of their anger is a matter of heated debate, and will be properly ascertained on November 6.

5. After U.S. Navy Seals killed Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden last year, American pundits predicted that the wave of enthusiasm that swept America would not last long enough to ensure Obama’s election to a second term. Up until a few days ago it seemed that they might have been right.

But at the recent Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, the elimination of bin Laden took center stage. It served as the favorite rallying cry for many of the speakers and launched wave after wave of patriotic bursts and cries of “U.S.A., U.S.A.” usually associated with the right. It may have immunized Obama, who gave the final go-ahead for Operation Neptune Spear, as it was called, from accusations of vacillation and appeasement that are often the Achilles Heel of Democratic candidates. It may have bolstered his credentials as a leader with strength, and, more importantly, as one who is not a stranger to success, notwithstanding his questionable economic performance.

So that if Obama wins the elections, especially in a close race, his victory may have as much to do with Bin Laden as with anything else. The leader of Al-Qaida will thus continue to cast his long shadow over American affairs, even from his grave.

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