Though there are similarities and differences between the two men, I liken Osama bin Laden’s death with Pablo Escobar‘s in 1993. Both were the most wanted men in the world. Both were considered narco-terrorists. Both were a threat to U.S. interest. The U.S. also benefited at certain times from these men. There was a long man-hunt for both men. The U.S. was involved in killing both men.
If we could learn anything from these past 18 years after Escobar’s death, what could that be? Killing one man at the head of something that is bigger than the man does not make the issue go away, especially if the root problems are not tackled. Eighteen years have passed and the so-called war on drugs (now a narco-terrorist war since 9/11) continues. It has evolved.
Strategies changed when new leaders took charge after Escobar’s murder. Because of context and changing environmental drifts, not only did strategies and tactics change but new actors also got involved—some more, some less, some new. The drug war/narco-terrorist war continues 18 years later. In fact, it has been in the U.S. for a while not only via consumption of the products, but the violence is closer than ever arriving to territorial U.S. by means of the U.S.-Mexico border, for example.
If we continue with outdated strategies and tactics we will continue with similar results, as the drug war in the Americas is testament. Killing the head of one of the most profitable markets in the world (though illicit), as was the case with Escobar, will not cut demand for the product. In turn, some other businessperson will most likely take the shoes of the previous one who was killed just like if the CEO of an oil company would be replaced if he too passed away unexpectedly.
Though he was the orchestrator of 9/11, Al Quaeda does not exist, nor did it continue because of bin Laden. It will remain, evolve, and resume its actions. There is something much stronger holding them together than one man. The tremendously profitable drug trade did not exist solely because of Escobar, for example. The fact he could profit from drug addicts and the like made him an opportunist and a businessman, along with his little respect for human life, willing to do anything to live the kind of life he wanted.
Both men were driven and had the resources to manifest their individual wills onto the world, but they did not exist in a vacuum. Each man was not the embodiment of evil as if each existed outside the realm of environment and context. To place the totality of blame onto each man without dissecting and unpacking the complex web of variables that created the circumstances for each to become the most wanted in the world at a certain point in time is simply irresponsible, naive, and, quite blatantly, stupid and ignorant policy. To say they were the embodiment of evil as if they were possessed by the devil, and, thus, we or the rest of the world had nothing to do with their potential rise is quite the farce. We are embarrassing and disgracing ourselves with such reasoning. We are making a mockery out of ourselves.
Unless the policy succeeds in complete annihilation of the Other, of the enemy, of the opponent—as in complete and total genocide of bodies and the removal of discontent (control of dissemination of information) by those who remember history—then we are engaged in a potentially never-ending game. I call it a game because many celebrating in the U.S. are treating bin Laden’s death as an ultimate victory of their favorite sports team. It feels like the jubilation against a rival who, after a decade of kicking our ass by going undefeated, was finally subdued to our awesomeness. This is not a game. This is not a true victory, especially if we look at the bigger picture. In our recent history, we have already heard the premature declaration of a military success as “Mission Accomplished.” We have seen how accomplished that turned out. But maybe it wasn’t the accomplishment that was the problem, but the mission itself that was anemic? That’s something to think about because we are heading toward a similar “mission accomplished” type of phenomenon.
Further, if we are to take such past missions and strategies—against narco-terrorism, for example—to their logical conclusions, we should also target drug consumers, not just producers/suppliers, as terrorists. George Bush, in a 1988 campaign speech, made this very clear to me, but not to himself: “The logic is simple. The cheapest way to eradicate narcotics is to destroy them at their source. […] We need to wipe out crops wherever they are grown and take out labs wherever they exist.” He took this policy to the White House, which was later implemented by succeeding presidents. Bush Sr.’s logic is quite “simple” and the “source” has been arbitrarily defined as anyone who may be responsible; anyone but the U.S. With such logic, the source is also, and primarily, U.S. Americans since they are the primary consumers. The U.S. military should then be deployed on its own territory because, as Economics 101 courses profess, the source of a business is the demand. If there is no demand, the business will most likely fail. There’s a relationship, and the relationship has not found its way into counter-narcoterrorism policy to make a significant difference.
To keep Bush Sr.’s reasoning going, if we are to follow his simple logic to conclusion—a logic all succeeding presidents applied, Democrat and Republican—then why are we also not fighting the “war” on violence and the illegal arms trade within U.S. territory? Last I checked, the “source” of deaths caused by firepower is the actual gun/machine gun/bomb, etc., and the leading world supplier of arms is none other than the U.S. If we are to apply the same “simple logic”—as Bush Sr. proposed and applied since the war on drugs—to justify focusing on the supplier (the “source”), then why should the U.S. not also create a policy that copies and pastes this argument against the main producer/supplier of arms?
I don’t suggest we go out and enact complete genocide “at the source.” What I am simply trying to illustrate is how arbitrary—and driven by self-interests—such so-called security policies have been and how ineffective they have been when they have tackled the bigger picture and larger issues. The killings of bin Laden and Escobar are variables of tactics and strategies we need to revise, reinterpret, re-evaluate, and re-envision if we are sincere about what we propose we are doing. A new discussion must arise, but it will most likely not come from the top; it may have to germinate from bottom up. This new strategy needs to further involve (1) the place demand has in the drug aspect of the war, and (2) an understanding of the reasons—concerns and grievances—those who want to do harm to others have in the terror aspect of the war. Further, this strategy should also revise the tactics used to decrease drug production. But most importantly, we, as an international community, need to have a long and honest discussion regarding the legalization of drugs. There is much more we can include on this list since I just provided a general outline, but the point is that it needs to be revised if we truly want to achieve security, progress, fruition, and a greater quality of life for all those impacted by the “narco-terrorism war.”
So, is it time for celebration now that bin Laden is gone? No. The issue is more complex and bigger than the man.
Not only will we “only have peace when we stop the cycle of jubilation over acts of violence,” as Pamela Gerloff recently wrote, but also how can we celebrate something (especially to the extent that it has been celebrated in the U.S.) that has been proven to be ineffective, inconsistent, and counter-productive? If history has demonstrated anything with such a policy—an obsession with targeting kingpins, arbitrarily defining the “source” of the problem and what the “problem” is, and the unwillingness to recognize our own involvement in our insecurity dilemmas and how we, too, may be responsible—then I await a continuing and pro-longed “narco-terrorist war”; maybe under a different name and dressed in different attire in the future, but in the future nonetheless.
Julián Esteban Torres López is an editor, writer, researcher, and educator with nearly two decades’ experience working with publications, historical societies, and cultural and research institutions, and has held leadership positions in the academe, the arts, journals, the business sector, and history museums. You can follow him on Twitter.