Why Does bin Laden's Death Feel Like a Triumph?

A decade after 9/11, Americans feel catharsis at the terrorist's killing, but years will pass before we know the victory's real shape

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The American reaction to Osama bin Laden's death was as close as the war on terror has come to the ticker-tape celebrations of 1945. The nation's mood lifted. Americans walked a little taller. Elated crowds gathered at the White House. President Obama received praise from across the political spectrum. Why do people see the death of bin Laden as a profound victory?

At first glance, the answer seems obvious--we killed our main enemy. But in our book Failing to Win, we found that throughout history, beliefs about victory and defeat in wartime have often been in the eye of the beholder. Perceptions of success can differ radically from the reality on the ground--shaped by powerful and sometimes misleading factors like media spin.

Sometimes the United States gains little in wartime but American leaders are still lauded. The War of 1812, for example, went down in history as a great victory even though the British laid waste to Washington D.C.

Bin Laden personified the 9/11 attacks. After 10 years, suddenly and unexpectedly, Americans experienced a cathartic moment.

At other times the United States achieves significant goals, but the mission is nevertheless seen as a disaster. The U.S. intervention in Somalia in the early 1990s saved around 100,000 lives, but was widely viewed as one of the greatest debacles since Vietnam.

Skewed perceptions of success and failure have never been more evident than in the war on terror.

Victories have been exaggerated. The Bush administration celebrated the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003 as "Mission Accomplished" when the real battle had barely begun. Meanwhile, successes have been ignored. By 2008, the United States had turned the tide against the Iraqi insurgency but Americans didn't celebrate. Church bells didn't ring at home. Instead, many people simply forgot about Iraq. And the secretive nature of the shadow war against Al Qaeda means that many triumphs and tragedies are completely unknown.

So what about bin Laden's death? Do the heady perceptions of success in the last few days reflect real gains on the battlefield?

In part--yes. Bin Laden's death could spark a leadership crisis for Al Qaeda. The computer disks and hard drives found in bin Laden's compound might also prove significant.

But how much of a tangible victory was this? Bin Laden had long ceased to direct the day-to-day operations of Al Qaeda. We have not cut off the head--only the figurehead. The State Department immediately warned that the chances of a terrorist attack had risen, not fallen. And in Afghanistan, the Taliban are hardly likely to give up--they have their own agenda, independent of Al Qaeda.

A poll taken shortly after the raid found that nearly 90 percent of Americans considered the killing of bin Laden to be a victory in the war on terror. But a large majority believed there was a heightened risk of terrorist attack in the short-term, and the public was evenly split on whether the long-term terrorist threat had decreased or increased. Only 16 percent of Americans said the killing of bin Laden made them personally feel safer.

The death of bin Laden feels like a victory less because of any strategic gain on the battlefield and more because of symbolism. Politics, after all, is often about emotion--a matter of the heart as much as the head.

Bin Laden personified the 9/11 attacks. After 10 years in the seeming quagmires of Afghanistan and Iraq, suddenly and unexpectedly, Americans experienced a cathartic moment.

Bin Laden's death also satisfied a powerful desire for retribution and justice. For many, it felt good whether or not it served U.S. interests. The no. 1 bad guy in the world deserved to be punished--period.

And the way bin Laden met his fate furthered the sense of triumph. The months of painstaking spy work, the lightning raid by Navy Seals on a secret compound under cover of darkness, the fierce firefight that ended when bin Laden was struck by an American bullet to the head--it was straight out of Hollywood.

The killing of bin Laden would have seemed less of a victory if his charred body had been found in the rubble of a British airstrike or a Polish mortar barrage in Afghanistan.

Perceptions of victory and defeat in the fog of war are often profoundly distorted. But in a crucial twist, faulty perceptions can actually rebound to shape the real battlefield--in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Whether American and foreign audiences think the death of bin Laden is a U.S. victory, and what kind of victory, may ultimately determine whether it really is a victory. Will the U.S. public renew its commitment to the difficult mission in Afghanistan, or see this as the signal to leave? And just as crucially, will Al Qaeda's supporters view the death of bin Laden as a dispiriting defeat, or a galvanizing martyrdom? The meaning of bin Laden's death lies in the eye of the beholder.

Image credit: Reuters/Jim Young

Presented by

Dominic Johnson & Dominic Tierney

Dominic Johnson is a Reader in Politics and International Relations at the University of Edinburgh and author of Overconfidence and War: The Havoc and Glory of Positive Illusions. Dominic Tierney is assistant professor of political science at Swarthmore College and author of How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War.

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