Less than two days after the killing of Osama bin Laden, the James Madison Program hosted a panel discussion that asked what his death will mean for America and the world. Held in Dodds Auditorium May 3 and moderated by Madison Program director Robert P. George, the panel included Middle East and Islam historian Bernard Lewis, Near Eastern studies professor emerita Jennifer Bryson, assistant professor of Near East studies Michael Reynolds, and Darren Staloff, a history professor at the City College of New York.
Bryson said that it was important to consider what historians would think when looking back on the killing of Bin Laden, as well as the lessons to be learned from the period leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks. One such lesson, which Bryson said that the American government and private sector have “barely begun to learn and must learn more deeply,” is the importance of having an understanding and concern for what foreign populations think when conducting U.S. foreign relations.
“If America were once again to understand foreign populations … the world would find us to be more informed and effective,” she said, noting that the United States has not yet recovered its capacity for good foreign policy since the abolition of the U.S. Information Agency, once “a vitally important part of the U.S. government for foreign outreach.”
“9/11 hit us unequipped,” Bryson said. “This lack of an arm of the U.S. government that deals with populations has in many ways paralyzed us going forward.”
Staloff discussed what he felt the killing of bin Laden might mean for U.S. political culture. “At moments like these, Americans recognize the fundamental unity of most of our convictions – the fundamental shared values that unite us across regions, across faiths, across ideologies,” he said. “We are the seed that rests beneath the surface eddies of partisan politics. … This is a moment that can serve to unify us.”
Lewis, who summarized the conditions in the Middle East that enabled bin Laden’s rise to power, cautioned against the perception that the United States had achieved victory, and Reynolds agreed, saying that bin Laden’s death will not mark the end of American involvement in the Middle East and may not disrupt the operations of groups such as al-Qaida.
The panelists took questions from the audience, including one about the best approach to publicizing bin Laden’s death. Staloff explained that he would prefer that detailed information be released sooner rather than later, as certain parts of the world are “more reliable to wild conspiracy theories than others.”
“The images may be graphic and ugly,” Staloff said, “but I’d like to think that … showing a direct frankness in use of force may do a lot more in making ourselves respected – and to some extent, liked – than being a bit overly sensitive.”