I stayed up much later than I intended to, streaming C-SPAN, so I could watch the President announce something historic. For reference, here is the video.
I’m still parsing what I think about this, but I have some initial responses.
- I cannot agree with the President when he says that “justice has been done.” Justice is not and can never be merely an event. Justice is a process, a daytime process. The path of justice is not illuminated by muzzle flashes in the darkness. What was announced last night might be a military victory and an intelligence success. It might even be a great victory and a great success. But I fear the implications of naming it justice.
- While I am opposed to capital punishment, the killing of Osama bin Laden does not fully engage with those political beliefs. I am not an absolute pacifist. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 I was supportive of military engagement in Afghanistan. As it happens, that engagement was severely mishandled, then all but forgotten while another utterly pointless war was waged, and finally resumed with focus under a drastically different and more fraught geopolitical circumstance. But I believe that military pursuit of people responsible for attacks against civilian targets within our major cities is appropriate. Seen as a military action against an unprovoked aggressor, rather than an act of retributive justice, the killing of Osama bin Laden has a degree of propriety.
- The killing of Osama bin Laden would have more than just a degree of propriety if the primary goal had been to capture him and actually bring him to justice. That is, bring him to a place where he could be tried and undoubtedly convicted for his crimes. Reuters reports that this was not the case. The operation was a “kill mission;” capture was never the goal. This complicates evaluating the propriety of the act. The position of the government for the last decade was that Osama bin Laden needed to be “caught or killed,” so his death was always a potential goal. But having made no attempt at capture opens the President to the accusation that the political gain of eliminating such a widely hated figure was valued more highly than the systematized pursuit of justice. Combined with the President’s willingness to claim that this is justice done, I am again troubled.
- Though I find the direction of leadership questionable and somewhat troubling, I find the effectiveness heartening. A decade of failure at what was repeatedly claimed as the government’s highest military goal had led me to feel there was an essential, pervasive ineptitude to our intelligence and military infrastructure. Now I have the option of viewing the mission to “capture or kill” Osama bin Laden as not a decade-long failure, but as a success that took 2.5 years once our armed forces were being commanded by a competent President. Reducing the scope of government ineptitude from systemic to individual leaves a wide enough crack in my cynical door to let in some optimism.
- On the propriety of people celebrating Osama bin Laden’s death: it is understandable, and easily forgivable, and wrong. A small wrongness that is not at all worth the spiral of recriminations and defensiveness that I suspect will be the result. The last decade has been an exercise, on a social level, of catering to and encouraging our basest natures and fears. Security theater has become ubiquitous, rights have been adulterated, and tens of thousands of lives have been lost. Though marrying retributive and celebratory urges is an obscenity, it is far less of an obscenity than mass murder. Osama bin Laden’s death is validly cathartic for many, and caring overmuch about how that catharsis finds expression is a waste of energy.
- What is not a waste of energy: remembering that this victory, to the extent that it is a victory, is a purely symbolic one. One horrible person is dead. As was shown so clearly with Saddam Hussein, a death is not, in any lastingly meaningful way, a mission accomplished. Just as justice is a process, so is safety, and so is peace. Osama bin Laden was not the dragon hiding in his den, and Happily Ever After does not begin now that he is dead. This is not a story. Something is done, but nothing is easier.