Also unhealthy for us been the use of what until recently would have been considered un-American methods of intelligence-gathering and dealing with prisoners. Bury Guantanamo and other nebulous versions of purgatory with bin Laden. Even if they are effective, they do not represent who we are as a nation, and they act as a lightning rod of support for the other side.
In a larger sense, the United States can seek détente by adding any vengeance, real or perceived, to the things we bury with bin Laden. Those who supported him at low levels should be given the opportunity to bury that as well. Renouncing their support at this time amounts to only face-saving, but it’s a dignity that we should allow.
We should also bury our fear that our deterrent is not credible. Our ability to impose penalties against nations that support terrorists or carry out other harmful actions was proven beyond a doubt after 9/11, and again in Operation Iraqi Freedom. These were deterrence successes and have a simple narrative: The United States is roused to action and arrives with overwhelming force. It embarks on a swift and devastating campaign that, while not securing victory, unquestionably results in the opposing nation’s defeat. For our enemies, the fact that we found and killed bin Laden proves to any future terrorists that the United States will go to the ends of the earth to get its man.
It remains to be seen whether al Qaeda is buried with its leader. To prove it is not, it must strike again, and soon. But its mandate for action could not come at a worse time: the trump card of intelligence obtained from bin Laden’s compound can only incite fear. Thus, what this terrorist group is accustomed to imposing on others is now spreading among its surviving leaders. These two factors—the need to act coupled with increased risk—force remaining members to make a choice between doing and dying or not doing and dropping out.
The United States has a bad habit of planning to fight the last war. We need instead to bury any plans for a replay of the war against terrorism. Much has been made of the fact that the U.S. military changed from a force to fight competitors into one of nation-building and counterinsurgency. But we should prepare to fight peers, in which case we may find ourselves in a smaller conflict that it is easier for us to win. We must never lose sight of the fact that peer competitors have the ability to impose severe costs on the United States and its way of life, but terrorists have the ability only to make us impose costs on ourselves.
Future historians will, hopefully, bury bin Laden’s legacy where it belongs: as a sideshow of this era. Most important of all the things we must bury with bin Laden, we must never resurrect him as a bogeyman, which would keep him alive as a symbol of fear. If we keep him buried, we have won.