By William Pfaff

A day will undoubtedly come when Osama bin Laden will occupy the same place in 21st century history books as Gavrilo Princip holds in the histories of the 20th Century. Both committed acts that provoked great wars, brought down empires and profoundly altered their times.

Gavrilo Princip was a student, a Serb nationalist, born in Bosnia in 1894. He was a classmate of a girl who became the wife of a Yugoslav scholar and eventual political exile whom I knew and worked with in New York City in the late 1950s. These events are not that long ago. Princip touched off the First World War, was responsible for overturning the Austrian, Russian and British empires, unknowingly opening the way to Lenin, Stalin and Hitler, and all that has followed. He died of tuberculosis in 1918.

Osama bin Laden was an impassioned vindicator of Islam, believing he could save it from immense secular powers who were enemies of religion and God. He died at the hands of members of the U.S. Navy, and his body was dropped into the sea.

Princip was a powerless radicalized schoolboy. Osama was a rich member of a powerful family. Each of them changed -- or terminated -- the lives of millions of people, as well as changing many of us still alive, and members of generations yet unborn. The two did so with the unwitting collaboration of Western political leaders who contributed arrogant violence to violence, believing that the future belonged to them, not to insignificant fanatics. The fanatics have had the last laugh.

Bin Laden was a Saudi-Arabian nationalist of Yemeni family origin, born in 1957, his father's 17th child. His father divorced his mother, and Osama was brought up with the children of her second husband. The bin Laden family is rich thanks to the father's construction business, favored by the Saudi Arabian monarchy, and that is today a multinational conglomerate. Osama was educated in private schools in Saudi Arabia and was remarked by his contemporaries for his Wahhabi religious devotion.

In 1979, he joined the supporters of the Pakistan and CIA-supported mujahedeen fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. He contributed and raised funds for the war and established a camp and training facilities in Pakistan for the mujahedeen.

At the time of Desert Storm, the U.S.-led coalition war that freed Kuwait from Iraq's invasion and occupation in 1990-'91, the young militant protested Saudi Arabia's allowing U.S troops to be stationed in his country, the location of his religion's holiest places, in preparation for the attack on Iraq, and their continued presence there following the war in what the U.S. wished to become a permanent American base in Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden's protests eventually led to his being stripped of Saudi citizenship.

These experiences were prelude to the sensationally successful al-Qaida attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington on September 11, 2001, planned and organized by bin Laden. (One of the group of bin Laden family members and associates evacuated from the U.S. by private plane after those attacks -- under FBI supervision -- was Osama's half-brother, Shafig bin Laden, who had been in the United States attending an investors' meeting of the Carlyle Group.)

Since then, the United States and its allies have invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, largely destroying the infrastructure of both countries, dislocating more than a million Iraqi citizens and killing or wounding hundreds of thousands, igniting ethnic and religious tensions throughout the country, and bestowing upon the Sunni Muslims who formerly dominated the country an unstable Shiite-controlled government decisively influenced by Shiite Iran -- thus contributing to the Muslim war of religion sectarianism that is insidiously developing in the region.

The United States has wreaked similar damage upon Afghanistan, from which it uneasily expects to withdraw its military forces by 2014, again having exacerbated ethnic (and regional) tensions, and created an unstable ethnic minority government which may reasonably be expected to collapse soon after the American departure. It is not implausible to expect a regional war to follow, in which nuclear-armed Pakistan and India may participate. The United States will be fortunate if it escapes implication in this new war.

The Arab world, under the impact of foreign interventions, is now undergoing revolution and self-inflicted devastation in Syria, the aftermath of revolution and foreign intervention in Libya, a poisonous neglect of Palestinian oppression, overturned governments in Tunisia and Egypt, with vast increases in the influence of Muslim fundamentalist forces determined to reverse such modernizing trends and institutions as have developed in the region, and the rise of an embattled Iran.

We in the United States? What has happened here has been done to ourselves by ourselves, fanaticized by events out of our control. We have made deep change in the manner in which our constitutional government functions and in which our Bill of Rights is interpreted. We have become a divided country ruled by money, a remedy to which seems precluded by the redistribution of political power that has taken place in the nation. We owe all this, and the future wars that may be expected, to the dreams and piety of Osama bin Laden, now at the bottom of the sea.


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