Why am I not elated by the killing of Osama bin Laden, when so many of my neighbors and friends are?
I can do the realpolitik calculation. He initiated/inspired/caused several deadly attacks on my neighbors and friends. Killing him will not likely end those attacks entirely, though it may discourage his adherents and disrupt their organization. It may also make him a martyr and inspire calls for revenge against the United States. Yet, at the very least, it sends a critical message that you cannot attack this nation with impunity, that there will be consequences, and fatal ones.
The “Hunt for bin Laden” has been a mixed mission, with elements of military and law enforcement action. That mixture reflects the frustrations of the back-alley confrontation we have been conducting with Islamic terrorism. The terrorists are not a nation that we can invade and conquer. We wanted there to be one. That’s why we invaded and conquered Iraq, and why we invaded and did not conquer Afghanistan. Those military actions have proved to be sadly beside-the-point.
Instead, the battle with al Queda is much more of a law-enforcement struggle, like fighting underworld gangs. The expedition that killed bin Laden had the flavor of a drug war raid, or the FBI taking down Baby Face Nelson or John Dillinger. Yet it was performed by our armed forces, Navy SEALs. I have searched for an historical analogy to this mission, and have come up only with General John Pershing’s 1915 invasion of Mexico to find and punish Pancho Villa, a punitive expedition that failed fairly completely.
That may be why the killing of bin Laden feel less like a successful military maneuver and more like one gang retaliating against the challenge from another.
There is a karma for nations, as there is for individuals. The game of assassination is dangerous to a nation’s karma. Was it a coincidence that John Kennedy was assassinated at a time when his administration was scheming with the Mafia to kill Fidel Castro, or shortly after it had inspired South Vietnamese generals to kill the leader of that sad nation, Ngo Dinh Diem?
The United States of America was founded on a desire to build a nation and society that was different, where freedom and dignity were protected for everyone, and where the power politics of the Old World would be left in the past. “Our constitution is a peace establishment,” Thomas Jefferson said in 1806. “War would endanger its existence.” From the security screening that permeates our lives to the men rotting in Guantanamo, there can be no disputing that the war on terror has cost us dearly in terms of our own liberty.
But we do not dwell in Utopia. bin Laden did us great harm. Repaying that harm, even in this fairly small way, is what a nation and a people are entitled to do. I hope it helps to persuade Islamic terrorists to reconsider their course and choose peaceful pursuits, though that hope feels utopian in the extreme. I do not, however, feel elated about the killing of this man.