So, this happened, which was weird:
[May 1, 2011,] 11:35 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Good evening. Tonight, I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al Qaeda, and a terrorist who’s responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women, and children.
Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.
Weirder still that it happened on what would have been the 53rd birthday of my late brother Tom, who told me, in a telephone conversation on September 11, 2001, “The first thing I thought when I heard a plane hit the World Trade Center was, ‘It’s gotta be Osama bin Laden’ … .” And, of course, he was right. As he was about a lot of things.
Since the news of bin Laden’s killing broke nearly 48 hours ago, the internet has literally been on fire; and while there’s been a fair amount of jubilation and, frankly, triumphalism, in the wake of his demise, there have also been accusations and recriminations from left and right; plus a burgeoning tide of “deatherism,” mostly, but not exclusively, on the right. Think Progress reports:
Mere hours after President Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden, supported by incontrovertible DNA evidence, the conspiracy theorists are hard at work. Andrew Breitbart, a prominent right-wing commentator with close ties to the Republican Party and the Tea Party, is pushing the theory on his website Big Peace.
On Breitbart’s website, J. Michael Waller, suggests Obama take a number of extraordinary steps so he can “make sure [Osama] is dead.” Pictures are apparently not enough. Walker asserts that he needs to be able to “walk right up to bin Laden’s corpse and view it.”
48 hours later, still no photographic evidence that Osama bin Laden is dead. Why?
Never mind the fact that earlier today, Miller published a column in which she, with cartoon-character-like predictability, sneered that Pres. Obama “cut his [Sunday] golf game short by nine holes in order to get back to the White House to monitor the final moments as Navy SEALs killed bin Laden in Pakistan.” Hey, why be consistent when you can bash the President for playing golf while Navy SEALs kill Public Enemy No. 1, then express doubts Public Enemy No. 1 is really dead in order to make the President look bad.
Elsewhere, Politico documents the absurd death-denying circus:
In the United States, suspicious voices rose across the political spectrum. Radio host Alex Jones, a powerful hub of anti-government sentiment and leader of those who believe the American government was behind the September 11 attacks, instantly floated his own theory: “Government had Osama bin Laden frozen for years.”
Anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan wrote her supporters, “I am sorry, but if you believe the newest death of OBL, you’re stupid. Just think to yourself—they paraded Saddam’s dead sons around to prove they were dead—why do you suppose they hastily buried this version of OBL at sea? This lying, murderous Empire can only exist with your brainwashed consent—just put your flags away and THINK!”
Others speculated that perhaps bin Laden had never existed at all. And throughout a Muslim world in which bin Laden’s guilt in the 9/11 attacks remains, according to polls, widely doubted, the stealthy American incursion could only stir more conspiracy theorizing.
And yes, in case you doubted it: Alex Jones’ Cryogenic Bin Laden Theory is by far my all time favorite bit of right-wing insanity ever.
Putting aside the nuttiness, though, I have to say it’s been a bizarre couple of days. From watching cheering crowds gather in front of the White House and at Ground Zero to reading relieved and sometimes joyful Tweets from liberal friends who support the President’s decision to take out an admittedly hateful human being, I keep thinking: I really don’t know how I feel about this.
I will say this much: I am not going to scold people who celebrate bin Laden’s death. What happened on September 11, 2001 scarred most of us, even if we didn’t lose friends or family members in the attacks, because merely witnessing the events of that day – planes crashing into buildings; people jumping to their deaths to avoid being consumed by fire; and, ultimately, the two towers collapsing on live television before our very eyes, knowing hundreds, maybe thousands, of people were still inside and had no chance of survival – that affects you. Watching people’s lives get snuffed out in front of you while you sit helplessly in your living room is a pretty freaking awful experience, as it turns out.
And so I don’t think any honest emotion felt that day was a wrong emotion. People were scared; they were angry; they felt enormous sadness. And some people felt blind rage and the desire for vengeance. Those were involuntary reactions to images and events we had no choice but to witness. None of us had the right to tell our fellow humans how to react to those images and events; none of us had the right to tell anyone else how they were supposed to feel on September 11. And I think that’s equally true now.
But just as I don’t feel the need to scold people who cheer bin Laden’s death, I’m also compelled to say I don’t feel any desire to dance on anyone’s grave. I’m sorry; it’s just not me. I can’t make myself feel those things – happiness, or vindication, or whatever – anymore than I can tell someone not to feel those things.
But as to the bigger question, I suppose I am, in a sense, glad Osama bin Laden is gone. It’s not because I ever wanted revenge – again, I don’t get that; it’s just not something I value, at all, revenge – but it is because maybe bin Laden’s death will save innocent lives, at least for the short term. Maybe bin Laden’s death will disrupt al Qaeda for awhile, such that it lacks the leadership or the organizational wherewithal to plan or pull off attacks … for a few months, maybe longer. And maybe al Qaeda will devolve into chaos in the absence of its charismatic founder, and never carry out a successful terrorist mission ever again.
On the other hand, since the day of the 9/11 attacks I’ve wanted to see bin Laden and his top generals taken into custody and put on trial for their war crimes – because that’s precisely what the 9/11 attacks were: crimes against humanity – just like we put Nazi war criminals in the dock in Nuremburg and held them accountable for the Shoah and all the other unspeakable acts of inhuman brutality carried out by Hitler’s Third Reich. Because putting these monsters on trial and affording them due process is the right thing to do, and it proves that we – not necessarily we as human beings, but our system, our rules and institutions – are better than they are; that we embrace our humanity and our decency and our political values even in the worst moments and in the face of the gravest threats. And maybe even more than that: full-blown trials with full due process rights have at their core a truth-seeking function; and used properly, that truth-seeking process would have been the ideal tool, as it was at Nuremburg, for exposing who these people are, what they stand for, and what they did to thousands of innocent civilians whom they had no right to kill.
That’s how I’ve felt since September 11, 2001. But there’s only one problem. Our current political climate is so patently absurd, and the political opposition has strayed so far from our core values, that it’s almost inconceivable bin Laden, had he been taken alive, would ever have seen the inside of a courtroom. After all, the same craven members of Congress who denied the Administration the ability to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a civilian court would never have allowed bin Laden to be tried anywhere outside of Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. And so rather than affording bin Laden due process and proving the superiority of our system – and rather than fulfilling the truth-seeking function of an honest-to-goodness trial – bin Laden’s fate would have been determined by the legally and morally bankrupt military commissions system that nobody has any faith in.
So, as much as it pains me to say it, and as much as bin Laden himself would undoubtedly protest, it’s not at all clear to me that we, or the world, would have been better off if he’d been taken alive. And that, my friends, is a terrible indictment of our justice system in the post-9/11 world.
© 2011 David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.