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The May 2011 assassination of Osama bin-Laden in Pakistan, by an American Seals team acting from helicopter platforms launched from neighbouring Afghanistan, provided a seemingly uniform relief to the Western World and many of the Arab allies of the “war on terror”. However, the consequences of the killing are still to become clear and they may well prove to be very different than what is now expected. Although the American Embassies in the Middle East have gone on a heightened security alert and some consular offices have reportedly been closed, the general public mood seems to be tranquil and enjoying the fact that the greatest terrorist menace of the modern age is now gone.

While it is certainly distasteful to join the chorus of joy over the killing of a man, even if he is Osama bin-Laden, in front of his family and unarmed, in the middle of the night — the chorus that tells much about the current spirit of the public in most of our western democracies — the strategic aspects of the elimination of bin-Laden are at least as confusing. The elimination of Osama bin-Laden could be seen as a contribution to fighting terrorism effectively only if Osama bin-Laden is seen as the main cause of terrorism. While he was almost certainly the chief inspirer and organizer of Al-Quaeda, the structural causes of terrorism do seem to go somewhat deeper than his personality, and have certainly not been removed by his killing. The expectation that either al-Quaeda, or its numerous “franchises” around the world that have nothing organizationally or resource-wise to do with the initial bin-Laden’s network, but like to use the name of al-Quadea’s “subsidiary”, would cease operation would seem very naïve.

Osama bin-Laden, born in 1957, was 44 years old when the Twin Towers collapsed in New York in 2001. Up until that time, he had a more or less free reign globally, and was able to operate most effectively, both in terms of the ability to hide his plans and operations, and in terms of relatively meager control efforts that had been directed at terrorism by the control agencies generally. Ten years later, already long in hiding, a hunted man, with a global security network on high alert for his name or any indication of al-Quada membership or link, he met his end unable to freely plan and a relatively immobilized terrorist leader whose peak had already been achieved. However, during those ten years of a world-wide hunt against terror groups, terror has grown more than in the entire period before 9/11. Countries that have known no terrorist groups, such as Iraq, now pride their own “al-Quaeda cells” who post videos of severed heads of western businessmen on their websites, and the perverted enthusiasm of the terrorist constituencies such as those in the border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan has seemed to rise, rather than subside. This would not have been the result of Osama’s great charisma (for in the past few years he did not even dare stick his head out of the hiding whole, or send a video to Al-Jazeera), but rather must have stemmed from more structural reasons for terrorism.

Ted Honderich bravely wrote in 2001, just after the 9/11 catastrophe, that reasons for terror were structural and social, and that no amount of repression would provide any measure of relief from it. Until the locked positions of the Muslim religious extremists and Western political leaders are resolved in a sensible dialogue and arguments are found to cool the hot fundamentalist heads, violence will only breed more violence, and the death of one Osama may well lead to the emergence of new, equally meancing, Osamas, Alis or Mehmets.

The killing of bin-Laden is a satisfaction to the American people and the American political leaders, this must be conceded. However, its actual instrumental value in fighting terrorism will be very meager unless serious social and political measures are taken to address the lack of dialogue between fundamentalist Islam and the West, and especially until social and economic issues are resolved that plague large parts of the Middle East.

Justice may have been done, as the American President Obama said, in the sense that justice was served on Osama for the killing of American civilians in 2001. However, in order to curb terrorism, a broader justice must be done so that a global sense of justice prevails, including the Middle East: the political structures of domination and oppression, both institutional and economic, reinforced by the war machines, represent injustice rather than justice. Thus, as Hoderich points it out, justice is truly the cure for terrorism, but a justice not just retributive: a justice social, equal, global and understanding of the long-standing frustrations of many of the Muslim populations around the world. Only in such an environment may the death of Osama bin-Laden truly lead to a decline in terrorism — by also serving the high aspirations of justice for those who have no powerful state to protect their innocent victims and punish the perpetrators. This justice must be a justice of mercy, of forgiveness, and of economic, political and institutional reconciliation and rejuvenation of the Arab countries now poisoned by resentment and support for terrorism.

Aleksandar Fatić