I thought I would be able to scrape by without commenting on the most significant current event to hit the news this week. I speak, of course, of the death of Osama bin Laden. I thought I could wait for it to pass, but then I realized I can't do the dance of joy, like so many others seem to be overjoyed to do.
I had and have no sympathy whatsoever for bin Laden and his partners-in-crime in Al Qaeda. What he planned and what they implemented ranks among the all-time most heinous crimes in the history of the human race. By all but the most pacifistic of viewpoints, it is hard to say he did not get what he deserved. If there is any truth to claims that abhorrent criminals will be dealt with appropriately in an afterlife, then he is a prime candidate for an eternity in hell. Ultimately, his life ended in the only way that seemed possible given the circumstances in which the termination of it originated.
One problem: accounts of the afterlife differ, in generalities and specifics. It is those differences that underpin some of the most violent disagreements ever experienced in human relations. While many would like to believe he is now in for never-ending torment, by his lights (and those of many others) he may be receiving a hero's welcome.
I think it would be most fitting if his soul (assuming such a thing existed) simply faded away into nothingness, no torment, no reward. Then it would be as if he had never been. This is perhaps the best that could be hoped for in the case of someone who deliberately put themselves so far outside the realm of human empathy and human kindness.
Terrorism did not originate with bin Laden, and it will not end with his death. The circumstances that allowed him and his ideology to flourish still exist, and nearly 10 years of American empire-building and backhanded fence-mending have done not nearly enough to mitigate them. That mitigation is perhaps ultimately an impossible task. The change has to happen in the hearts and minds of all citizens of the world. Al Qaeda may wither away, dying like a snake with its head cut off. But the ideas that drove bin Laden and his ilk will not. The ideas will mutate, like a virus, and the people who take them to heart will find new and terrible ways to slaughter innocents in the name of fanaticism.
Extremist will not forget. Even without a body, or a fixed landmark around which to gather, the circumstances of bin Laden's death will give fuel to the myth-making machinery of both sides in this conflict. That he died in a battle with U.S. forces only serves to increase his status as a warrior hero.
It would have been much better to have captured him alive and put him on trial. Ultimately, his fate would almost certainly have been the same, but it is the rule of law we supposedly subscribe to as Americans, and justice is what the law demands. In this case, what was served was vengeance, not necessarily justice. Vengeance usually breeds more violence, and that seems a likely outcome in this case.
Our military has shown themselves to be tough, perseverant and capable of incredible accomplishments in the worst of situations. I think the reward for them now should be our gratitude, but more importantly, I think they should come home. This is a "Mission Accomplished" in truth, far removed from the farce of that perpetrated under the same name in Iraq. There is no longer any sense in keeping them in harm's way, with the goal achieved.
Surely a great evil has been removed from the world. Truly this is the only way the story could have ended. Still, I cannot bring myself to celebrate death. This whole terrible mess originated in death, nearly 3,000 innocent people. Since 2001, American casualties in Afghanistan have amounted to about 1,465 deaths. Total coalition deaths are around 2,340. Total wounded estimates are in the tens of thousands.
In the name of the pursuit of one man, we have lost:
Nearly 10 years.
Over $400,000,000,000 estimated cost (and rising) of the war to date.
1,465 Americans killed.
That is why I cannot bring myself to dance and clap my hands with glee.
His was a death that had to be, but celebrating it makes me feel too much like the very killers we claim to abhor. The best that I can manage is a certain grim satisfaction, and a hope that his like doesn't plague the human race ever again.