Monday, May 2, 2011

Why I Won't Write about Bin Laden

I'm a member of the 9/11 generation. Like all Americans, we can remember exactly where we watched the Towers fall. For me, it was Mr. Flynn's world history class. But unlike all Americans, my generation was uniquely shaped by the horrors that day.We were old enough to comprehend the gravity of the attacks, but young enough that 9/11 would serve as the foundational moment of our lives.

Unlike our parents and grandparents, we could not compare what we saw and experienced that day to the other seminal moments of American and world history. Sure, we could draw facile connections to obvious analogies. But but we had no personal experience to draw upon. We were on our own to wrangle with and contextualize the raw emotions we felt.

Like many of my generation, we channeled those emotions into a desire to enter a life of public service. Some like myself focused specifically on the Middle East. We began to study Arabic, read about Islam and travel abroad in the Arab world. We did so for instrumental reasons. We wanted to learn what caused people like Osama bin Laden to murder so many innocent lives. More importantly, we wanted to help bring him to justice.

That's why, as an undergraduate, I hoped to one day become a counterterrorism intelligence analyst. I wanted to use my knowledge of the Middle East to protect the homeland. And as such, I viewed the Arab world largely as a security problem to be solved. But something unexpected happened: my interest in terrorism and Bin Laden faded.

I instead became fascinated for the Middle East for what it is: an immensely complex and diverse conglomeration of peoples, histories, religions and cultures. Terrorism may have brought me to the Middle East, but I have remained for wholly different reasons. I stayed partially because I thought I could help create a new beginning between the United States and the Arabic-speaking world. But in reality I stayed because I fell in love with the region - with the food, with the history, with the culture, and most of all with the people.

While the region is confronted by a host of profound problems, I have learned the region itself is not a problem to be solved. Rather, it is a wealth of potential to be activated. That's the main lesson we've learned from the Arab revolutions over the past few months.

That's also why I haven't written much about Al Qaeda previously on this blog and why I don't plan to start anytime soon. Others have dedicated their careers to solving the problem of Al Qaeda - and they deserve to be praised for their efforts to protect our immediate security. I, however, have turned my attention to how the U.S. can help the Middle East realize its full potential. It also just so happens that I believe that only then will the long-term threat of religious extremism  be no more.

Two years ago, I remember walking through a Muslim slum in Cairo when I spotted a faded picture of Bin Laden sticking out from a heap of garbage. Arabs have long ago thrown Al Qaeda into the refuse pile of history. They have shunned his murderous ideology for an entirely different narrative of hope, of pride, and of freedom. As we have seen these past few months, they are fighting bravely to actualize the vast potential of the region. In the words of Rachid Ghannouchi, a leading Islamist in Tunisia, on Al Jazeera today: "Bin Laden died in Tunisia before dying in Pakistan."

It is that struggle that will be the focus of this blog. Hopefully, it will also play a central role in my career. I cannot think of a better way to honor those lost on September 11th than by helping Arabs realize their inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Such an achievement will ensure that Bin Laden's photograph will forever remain rotting in that Cairo trash heap where it belongs.

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