It is May 2, 2011, the day that the world woke up to the death of Osama bin Laden. This is not strictly accurate, as the news broke late last night. (I fell asleep waiting for the press conference to start, and for the NY Times story to quit timing out because of traffic.) But this is the day we come to terms with what this means.
Unsurprisingly, spontaneous celebrations broke out around the country. Also unsurprisingly, a great many people winced at the celebration of the extrajudicial ending of a human life. I'm fully torn between these -- I want badly to celebrate the end of a decade of the world gone mad in reaction and counter-reaction to this man's actions, but from the very first instant I read the news, I felt a deep discomfort with that. This entry is me trying to write my way out of that. It is disjointed -- I have cut and paste paragraphs multiple times trying to get it to flow -- but I suppose that's what happens with blogging.
My first post on Facebook, the now seemingly universal repository for first reactions (at least for those of us who refuse to Tweet), referenced that I would rather he'd been captured and put to some sort of trial. And yet, to what end? We hear that he refused to surrender, to what extent that can be trusted, and was instead shot in the head. (I've also heard that the SEALs were ordered to kill, not capture). Is this surprising? Can we ever believe that this man would have surrendered to American forces in any circumstances? Would he have ever accepted the judgment of any court, Western, International, or Islamic? And what court would have had jurisdiction? Even if bin Laden were to have accepted it, the US has steadfastly refused to submit to the International Criminal Court, for fear that our own war criminals might fall beneath its eye. The worry with other terror suspects has always been that trials would merely serve as venues of propaganda for the accused, and surely that must be the worry here. I confess that from a standpoint of personal vengence, having him rot the rest of his life in a Supermax prison would have been preferable to a death in battle that will inevitably become a symbol martyrdom for some of his crazed followers, those that are not disheartened by the fall of the symbolic leader of al Qaeda. And still, I maintain that submitting him to the cold, hard verdict of a deliberative system of justice would have, more than any double-tap to the skull, proven the power and enduring superiority of the Western system of justice to his globalized, perpetual jihad.
The loss of his death is not somehow in our cruelty, or in its injustice, but in bin Laden's ability to drag us, as a country publicly into the ugly reality of human issues contested at the point of a gun. In the litany of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, Bagram, extraordinary renditions, waterboarding, stress positions, Bradley Manning, and so many other offenses, putting a bullet in the brain of Osama bin Laden cannot but fall to the bottom of injustices.
Andrew Sullivan, in his irrepressible dramatism, has declared this a victory of good over evil. I disagree. This is not "good" vs. "evil," not only in the sense that as a Christian I must at some level forgive bin Laden, but because being Reformed, I cannot believe that we are "good." I believe that we were the better party in this, and am glad at the result, but in the end, we are all fallen, and we are all forgiven.
Someone on Facebook quoted from Proverbs today, and I think it's quite fitting:
17 Do not rejoice when your enemies fall,
and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble,
18 or else the Lord will see it and be displeased,
and turn away his anger from them.
Osama bin Laden made his own decision to embrace the life of warrior. He set himself in opposition to not just the people of, but the idea of the USA. He refused any avenue that we might consider civilized, declared unequivocally his fight was by "Jihad and the rifle alone," (as per the New York Times obituary) and lived that to his last day. If we quail at his death in a firefight in Abbottabad, it should not be for his sake. As Gabriel Garcia Marquez said, for men like bin Laden, this is a natural death. What saddens me is that there was maybe once a chance, maybe it was 9 years ago if it existed at all, to bring bin Laden to the US in chains, try him, and toss him into a Supermax prison where he would die of something like liver failure, a death from which no honor or martyrdom could be derived, to respond to his international reign of terror, violence, and mass murder with cold steel and dispassionate justice.
However, it has been settled, not in the court I would desire, but in the manner bin Laden himself demanded -- the contest of the gun. I will not make an argument for the purity and unimpeachability of the USA. But it was bin Laden, not we, who chose this fight and this venue. He stood himself up as the greatest enemy of the US and the West, and rejoiced when we agreed. He refused any settlement of the contest other than the battles of blood and death. In this fight which engulfed much of the world, he pitched an endless war between himself and the USA, and in that contest, I back the US without hesitation. It has now come to the only settlement of the conflict he would accept, and the US has won. And that is, yes, worth quite a celebration. Not, as the writer of Proverbs warns us against, at the fall of our enemy, but for our own survival in the conflict.