Like most Americans, I feel no affection for the recently deceased Osama bin Laden. He’s dead, and, no doubt, the world is better for it.
But, at risk of spitting into the proverbial wind, let me also confess that the expressed intent of a government to murder an individual makes me deeply uncomfortable. No matter who that individual is.
I was uncomfortable every time I heard one of our Presidents--from Clinton, through Bush, to Obama--express their desire “to kill or capture” the terrorist mastermind. Since when does murdering people without a trial fall into the acceptable functions of government?
Now, before you start flaming me, let me emphasize that I’m talking about the “acceptable functions” of government. I understand that covert government actions sometimes target individuals, both in wartime and in peace, and I accept it as one of the necessary evils of any government.
Sometimes a government must exercise its power in order to ensure its power. I get it.
It’s a complicated planet, and sometimes the worst of its inhabitants are not easily corralled, let alone tamed, and one of the tools of a government must be the pursuit of thuggery and meanness into the shadows of the world, using shadowy tools in that pursuit.
But, just as we understand that a police officer can, with just cause, shoot a suspect in the commission of a crime, we understand that in the attempt to apprehend bin Laden he might be killed. Fine. No problem.
“Osama bin Laden, you’re under arrest.... Wait, he’s got a gun... Fire!”
Bang! Bang! Dead.
I have no problem with that, at all.
Beyond that, it doesn’t make me uncomfortable to imagine special forces units killing him in order to avoid putting themselves in unnecessary danger. They’re not toy soldiers. They have families and tell jokes and make plans for the summer. I don’t expect them to unnecessarily risk their lives to preserve the life of a murderer.
In fact, I’ll even go so far as to say that I’m okay with some military commander somewhere declaring to his troops with an ironic flair that “under no circumstances are you to kill bin Laden”--wink, wink, nudge, nudge.
Growing up in a society that balances the rule of law against our predatory thirst for blood, we understand all of this without explicitly embracing the possibility of murder. The police don’t have to walk around threatening murder--the guns on their hip speak loudly enough. It’s our commitment to courts and defense attorneys that make civil society better, not the sophistication of its weapons.
Of course bin Laden might have been killed in our efforts to apprehend him, but only after every attempt was made to capture him, to subject him to the harsh lights of civil justice, and demonstrate the banality and emptiness of his backwards ideology.
Unfortunately, the fact that the last three Presidents felt comfortable declaring their intention to murder someone, no matter how debased or irredeemable that someone, marks a disturbing turn for America.
America’s strength is its inherent suspicion of big institutions and bureaucracy; indeed, it’s a strength often exploited by lobbyists and politicians to the point of weakness. It’s why we value the individual, the little guy, the underdog. When the leaders of our republic bloody their pulpits with talk of vengeance, when they constrict their voices to cry out for the blood of one man, the nation shrinks alongside. We are smaller for it. Less noble.
I know some of you will say that he resisted capture, as the official report states. And I have no reason to doubt the official report, and do not find it difficult to believe that someone as desperate and egomaniacal as bin Laden would offer resistance. But it doesn’t matter, because that’s not my point.
Bang! Bang! Dead. I have no problem with that.
No, my problem is that when all three Presidents declare their desire to kill bin Laden, you know this story couldn’t have ended any other way. And when I read the account of how he was killed, in a late night raid upon a well fortified compound, I heard laptops powering up all over Hollywood, as screenwriters and studios raced to give us a movie about the thing that we already know.
That an eye for eye leaves the whole world blind.