What does Osama bin Laden’s death mean?

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on May 5, 2011

“Justice has been done,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in announcing the death of international Islamic terrorist and leader of the murderous Al Queda network Osama bin Laden. He spoke at 11:35 am Monday morning in Manila, hours after bin Laden died in a firefight at his million-dollar mansion in an affluent neighborhood in a mid-size city not far from Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad.

A large military base is located a short run from the mansion.

“Tonight America has sent an unmistakable message: No matter how long it takes, justice will be done,” Former U.S. President George W. Bush said in a statement posted on Facebook moments later. Justice came almost a decade following the most devastating attack on America in modern times.

As America and the world took in the news that the mastermind of the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City, Washington D.C., and the Pennsylvania countryside was dead, crowds began to gather in celebration. In New York City, where the twin towers of the World Trade Center were destroyed—the site now known as “Ground Zero” —revelers, young adults prominent among them, danced and hugged on fire trucks and in the streets.

The scenes were reminiscent of the iconic Times Square photo of the celebration of victory over Japan in 1945. The New York Times reporters Kate Zernike and Michael T. Kaufman wrote, “bin Laden was elevated to the realm of evil in the American imagination once reserved for dictators like Hitler and Stalin.” In the early hours of Monday morning, it was time to celebrate the demise of another national enemy.

While world leaders largely welcomed bin Laden’s death, governments warned their citizens to prepare for more violence by global Islamic terrorists seeking to avenge their fallen leader. “The fight against terror goes on,” Mr. Bush said. While Mr. Obama said that the U.S. is not at war with Islam, Brett Decker, editorial page editor of the conservative The Washington Times wrote, “The fact is a huge chunk of Islam is at war with America.”

Will bin Laden’s death change anything? The sad fact is that when large swaths of the global population who live in poverty are denied—for the sake of religious or political authoritarianism—access to opportunity, and therefore live without reasonable hope for a better future for themselves and their children, nothing will change. When individuals have nothing to lose but a life of misery, the tradeoff provided by a momentary act of violence—no matter how senseless it may seem to us—seems reasonable to those desperate for change.

Demonstrators in the Middle East are risking and giving their lives daily because the alternative to change is hopelessness. As I wrote here recently, conditions in many parts of the Philippines are not dissimilar to the circumstances that made bin Laden a folk hero and unthinkable mass murder a path to salvation. As Bloomberg columnist William Pesek recently wrote following a visit here, one in four Filipinos lives on less than $1.25 a day.

Those one-in-four spend the majority of their meager income on food, and with the cost of food rising almost daily, they are eating less and less even while the relatives of overseas workers are building new homes, IT-BPO and shared services companies are desperately seeking employees in urbanized centers, and engineers working in the electronics and semiconductors industry are seeing their companies’ fortunes—and personal career opportunities with them—on the rise again.

“The Philippines ranks 134th out of 178 countries in Transparency International’s 2010 corruption perceptions index,” Mr. Pesek wrote, “tied with Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. That’s a sobering reminder of the heavy lifting (Philippine President Benigno S.) Aquino (III) needs to do to make his economy more efficient and equitable.” Mr. Pesek believes the Philippines is moving in the right direction. A good question to ask is, Will it move fast enough?

For citizens in developed countries wondering why their governments are spending so much in foreign aid when their own economies are far from healthy and millions are living on welfare and food stamps, there are two answers. The first is that, “to whom much is given, much is required.” Developed economies have enormous capacity to help—even those struggling with immense economic and profound natural disasters—and they should.

There’s also a more cynical reason: self-preservation. If the developed world doesn’t make opportunities they enjoy accessible to all, there will always be desperate groups of men, women, and even children determined to do whatever needs to be done to bring everyone down to their level. Bin Laden’s death doesn’t and won’t change that. A big part of protecting a prosperous nation from its enemies is fighting the wrath of poverty in others.

Perhaps that’s how justice is truly done. Perhaps that’s when things might actually change.

(Michael Alan Hamlin is the managing director of TeamAsia and a Manila-based author. His latest book is High Visibility: Transforming Your Personal and Professional Brand. Write him at mahamlin@teamasia.com and follow him on TwitterFacebook and LinkedIn.). Copyright © 2011 Michael Alan Hamlin. All Rights Reserved.)


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