Unsurprisingly, the death of Osama bin Laden is still generating plenty of interest even as the mainstream news agenda moves on to newsier things.
But how much does his killing matter, and to whom?
It matters, of course, to bin Laden’s family. His sons in particular have spoken out against what they see as an “arbitrary killing” that violated international law. In a letter to the New York Times they ask why their father was not arrested and tried. When Barack Obama said that “justice had been done” in killing a man who had waged war on America, it raised an important question: has it really? Aren’t we told, in the West, that justice means the presumption of innocence and a fair trial? It is easy to see what Omar bin Laden and his brothers mean when they say “justice must be seen to be done”.
But the official American response – that it is “lawful to target an enemy commander” – is also understandable. Faced with a man who has repeatedly threatened American lives, killing him was not an assassination but “an act of national self-defence.“ These are very murky legal waters; a "messy business" as The Economist puts it.
But beyond bin Laden’s family, who else is affected by his death? Al-Qaeda, certainly but only to some extent. Just because it has lost its figurehead, its poster boy, does not mean that it will now collapse and follow its leader to the bottom of the sea. The Taliban, closely allied to al Qaeda, said its twin suicide bombing
at a Pakistani military academy was specifically to avenge bin Laden’s death. But even if bin Laden was still safely sitting in his Abbottabad mansion, another attack on a Pakistani military site was highly probable anyway.
The assassination/act of national defence has no doubt been a blow to al Qaeda but some commentators argue that “in the short term it is possible that terrorism may increase” as al Qaeda’s capos make their case to be boss by rushing through attacks on easy targets.
Beyond a small group of radicalised marginals though, bin Laden’s death has failed to capture the imagination of the wider Muslim world, writes Tariq Ramadan in the Guardian. He argues that for the world’s Muslims the killing was a “non-event.“
Polls back him up. Interest in bin Laden among Muslims had been declining long before May 2. Research by the Pew Research Center shows that in 2003 nearly three quarters of Palestinians were confident that the al Qaeda leader would “do the right thing” in world affairs. Just before bin Laden was killed that figure had dropped to a third. The same pattern was found among Indonesians, Lebanese, Jordanians and Pakistanis.
The idea that a dead Osama bin Laden makes for a more peaceful and harmonious world is far-fetched. His death neither really solves nor deepens any of the Arab world’s problems. Palestinians, Yemenis, Syrians, Libyans and Bahrainis have more pressing issues to worry about than the fate of one man in Pakistan.
It is in the United States where the death of bin Laden matters most. And it matters massively. For many Americans bin Laden had become an obsession. His death has now got the US media transfixed on another national obsession: the next presidential election.
The question on TV and radio news talk shows and in newspaper opinion columns is what does it mean in terms of Barack Obama’s chances of re-election. After the initial uniting effect of bin Laden’s death, the partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans is starting to re-emerge. A poll by the Associated Press showed that Obama’s approval rating had jumped to 60 percent, although the accuracy of that figure has been questioned as it appears to be a poll of more Democrats than Republicans.
Democrats are purring. They purr because Republicans, through gritted teeth, have had little choice but to praise the actions of a president they usually queue up to berate.
Democrats are purring at the sight and sound of Republicans mixing their messages. There is Ron Paul, who wants to run against Obama in 2012, saying that he would never have given the go-ahead for the operation to kill bin Laden. On the other hand there is former UN ambassador John Bolton hailing Obama’s “courageous decision.”
There are the right-wing bloggers who say Obama was lucky and reaped the rewards of Bush-era torture techniques.
And there’s John McCain, Obama’s 2008 rival, saying the exact opposite.
Of course, Obama’s bounce won’t last. By the time Americans go to vote at the end of next year, Obama will be judged on how many US citizens have escaped from unemployment and how many spare dollars they have in their bank accounts.
An interesting article in Politico argues that his re-election will be decided by the campaign performance of whichever Republican eventually wins the chance to run against Obama.
In other words, the death of Osama bin Laden may not really matter that much in November 2012. Not even in the United States.