Column: Obama on Osama: What he didn’t say

Published on May 3, 2011.

IT DIDN’T seem possible, even as recently as only the other day, that there will ever be an unambiguous victory in the wars of the Age of Terrorism—and yet there the crowds were outside the White House and in Times Square in New York City, at past midnight, celebrating like it was V-E or V-J Day.

The late-night televised announcement by US President Barack Obama (just before noon, Manila time) that a special US military operation had killed al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden in a firefight in Abbottabad, Pakistan, was electric news all around the world, and generated spontaneous crowds in some US cities. The wars on terrorism will never be as uncomplicated, at least in public perception, as World War II (the “Good War” to those who fought it in countries other than their own). But for a couple of hours, the Age of Terrorism lost some of its ambiguities, and joyful crowds (the one in front of the White House had swollen to thousands of Americans before the revelers headed home) exulted.

Colleague Inday Espina-Varona was right to call attention, some time before Obama made the official announcement, to the words Obama would use in breaking the news; they would help define public reaction. I caught most of the speech live, and studied the text as soon as it was released by the White House online. Reports from CNN, among other sources, revealed that Obama had done some or most of the writing. It might be useful to consider the audiences Obama addressed, instead of the so-called talking points.

In general, the announcement that will help define Obama’s presidency for all time was geared to two audiences. In fact, acknowledging those twin audiences was how he started. “Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world” that US forces had killed Osama.

But within the international community, Obama was also addressing a specific audience: “… we must also affirm that the United States is not—and never will be—at war with Islam.” Then came the line which jumped out at me during the live telecast: “Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims.” This is accurate, but I had never heard it expressed so powerfully before.

He also addressed a specific Muslim-majority country with which the United States has had very strained relations in the last several months. “Over the years, I’ve repeatedly made clear that we would take action within Pakistan if we knew where bin Laden was.” (In other words, take action even over the Pakistani government’s objections.) “But it’s important to note that our counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan helped lead us to bin Laden…” (In other words, the Pakistanis did cooperate, but not in a way that would likely offend the sensitivities of some Muslim groups in Pakistan.)

Much of his speech, naturally enough, was aimed at American citizens. Right after announcing Osama’s death, he made the following trademark study in contrast, which makes sense only in a post-9/11 context of American unity. “The images of 9/11 are seared into our national memory” (Obama then offers a sequence of four indelible images). And then he added: “And yet we know that the worst images are those that were unseen to the world” (after which follow four ordinary images, familiar because of their poignant ordinariness). “The empty seat at the dinner table. Children who were forced to grow up without their mother or their father. Parents who would never know the feeling of their child’s embrace. Nearly 3,000 citizens taken from us, leaving a gaping hole in our hearts.”

It is in his summary of the “tireless and heroic work” done to pursue Osama in the last 10 years, however, where Obama makes a telling omission. He spoke about “disrupted terrorist attacks” and the strengthening of US internal security. He referenced the war which began a couple of months after 9/11: “In Afghanistan, we removed the Taliban government, which had given bin Laden and al-Qaida safe haven and support.” He mentioned the continuing collaboration with “friends and allies” to target specific al-Qaida terrorists.

He did not, however, say a word about Iraq. That was when the so-called war on terror took a catastrophic detour, when the cowboys in the White House, under George “Dubya” Bush, squandered the massive international goodwill following 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan to chase non-existent weapons of mass destruction. As the intensified search for Osama in the last two years proves, focus, not distraction, is what led to the turning point.

* * *

RIZAL 150 NEWS. Of the many calendars of activity to mark Rizal’s 150th birthday that I’ve seen, almost nothing rivals the generous, even effusive, program prepared by the Philippine consulate in Chicago in partnership with the Filipino-American Historical Society of Chicago. (I say “almost nothing,” because the official calendar of the National Historical Commission is more comprehensive—in part because it incorporates many of the Chicago events.)

One initiative in particular deserves special mention.

It is not given to all countries to have a writer as a founding hero. The decision of the Filipinos and Fil-Ams in Chicago to donate copies of Rizal’s iconic novels, among the first anti-colonial novels in history, to libraries in the area is, therefore, a bolt of inspiration. Under the rubric of “Spreading Rizal’s Message,” the consulate and the FAHSC are donating copies of the original manuscripts of the “Noli” and the “Fili” to the University of Chicago, to Northern Illinois University, to the Chicago Public Library, to the Newberry Library, to the Rizal Heritage Center, to the Skokie Public Library, and to the Truman College. It’s one for the books!



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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Politics, Readings in Rizal

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