"But war, in a good cause, is not the greatest evil which a nation can suffer. War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse. When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice – a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice – is often the means of their regeneration. A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other."

Monday, May 02, 2011

"Got you, you son of a bitch"

Those were my first thoughts, mixed with surprise and a little disbelief, upon learning yesterday that Osama bin Laden, the man who unexpectedly brought fire and death to our country ten years ago, was just as unexpectedly killed by fire 24 hours ago. I had my phone in hand, trying to find some night-time entertainment in the area for Bree's family to enjoy before leaving San Diego, when a message popped up on the screen from one of my cousins. It simply said, "Osama dead." For a second I was more surprised by getting a random text message from her late at night, and then the meaning registered and I loaded up Fox News and saw the same headline blazing in red. Leaving the dinner table and turning on the TV, I told everyone what I'd just heard, and I think they all experienced the same surprise. No one saw this coming, and many probably never thought that this day - at least, in this way - would come.

We watched the president's speech, and the spontaneous celebrations breaking out in front of the White House and in Times Square. Bree and I sat watching in silence, and I daresay we shared similar thoughts. Relief that at least one danger to our family and friends was gone. Shock that now, suddenly, the man whose actions had propelled our military to the other side of the globe for a decade was finally brought low. And the bitterness of remembering what it cost, in time away from home, in the fear and uncertainty of deployments, and in the blood of our friends, to make this happen.

No doubt, as more details come out in the wash about how we found him, how we got him, and - perhaps most importantly - how he was able to hide for so long and so securely in a country that ostensibly was trying to help us find him, the sheen of last night will fade. But right now, there are certain things I'm glad of, and take comfort in. First and foremost, that the architect of decades of murder and terror can no longer threaten the world. How telling it was of his vile disregard for human life that, at the end, he grabbed one of his own wives and used her as a shield so that his existence might be prolonged for a few more seconds. Muslim or infidel, it didn't matter who died so long as his twisted vision lived. One of the greatest mass murderers in recent history is gone, and while there will always be others ready to spill the blood of innocents, men with his grotesque ability to inspire hatred and ghoulish creativity in devising methods of maximizing death are, fortunately, rarer. He will be hard to replace, and I'm glad of it.

I'm also glad of what this success demonstrates about our greatness as a nation. This greatness is not about having the coolest spy gadgets, the most precise and lethal weapons, or the best soldiers (though we do, yet they're not at the root of our greatness, but branches of it). Good cannot exist in this world in the absence of justice. Bin Laden's continued freedom was justice incomplete so long as he continued to release videos and tapes condeming the West, taunting us, and promising more death and misery so long as he lived. Our greatness, then, was not demonstrated by the precision marksmanship required to put two bullets through the man's skull, but rather that we never stopped our pursuit of bringing the unjust to justice. Would his capture and trial, viz. Saddam Hussein, have been preferable to his death? Would it have been more 'just'? I don't see how. Saddam turned his trial into a mockery of justice. And there has never been any question of bin Laden's guilt; indeed, it was a point of pride for him. You couldn't find an impartial judge or jury on this planet, as bin Laden and al-Qaeda have either murdered people on, or people from, every populated continent. And every day he lived, his existence would inspire his followers and insult the families of those whose futures he snuffed out. Regardless, if the current reports are accurate, he was offered a chance to surrender and he declined. So be it. Live by the sword, die by the sword. Either way, our pursuit of justice for bin Laden was the pursuit, also, of protecting what is good in this world. That pursuit brings greatness. And it is also a testament to our greatness that we have trained a cadre of warriors who can bring that bloody justice to the evil while taking care to protect the innocent. Bin Laden thought that greatness was demonstrated by killing civilians in large numbers and destroying everything around them; true greatness is sending a monster to his maker while leaving his neighbors unharmed.

Finally, I'm glad that, at last, this great chase had an end, and that the pursuit, after its great cost, was not abandoned. We have paid too great a price since that September morning ten years ago to declare the trail cold and the chase a failure. The dead of New York, DC, and Shanksville deserved better. The anguish of their families demanded more. And our warriors who went to Iraq and Afghanistan, impelled by the horrors of 9/11, and did not return, required resolution. They got it. Through three presidential terms, uneven success abroad, and incredible pressure at home, our leaders nevertheless refused to accept anything less than delivering on the original promise: dead or alive. For those who doubted it, the message could not be clearer: America does not give up. As President Bush said while the Twin Towers still smouldered, whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.

Perhaps it seems like Americans are gloating over the violent death of another human being. Certainly the celebrations that broke out last night were hardly somber and restrained. But I don't think we're 'celebrating death' as the jihadists and their supporters do. In a very immediate sense, the completion of this task which we long ago assigned ourselves is cathartic. For years its success seemed more and more out of reach. Add that to the economic turmoil since the housing crash, the social upheavals overseas, and the recent destruction wrought by the hand of nature at home, and finally putting one in the 'win' column is a relief. We won. The bad guy lost. It feels good. We've earned this. I don't think that's wrong. But I believe the celebrations are about more than that. Is it wrong to rejoice in the triumph of good over very real evil? Is it wrong to be relieved that a threat to our security and our loved ones has been removed? Is it wrong to be proud that the tremendous efforts of our intelligence and military forces have finally come to fruition, or that the sacrifices made by them and their families achieved something? Is it wrong to take satisfaction in the knowledge that, whatever future injustices might be visited on our citizens, our leaders still have the fortitude and courage to pursue the wrong-doers to any corner of the globe in which they choose to hide and rain justice down on them? I think all of the above is at work in our celebrations, and all of the above is worth celebrating. We celebrated and took pride in the destruction of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, not because we enjoyed killing others but because we knew that right triumphed, and that the future, while not perfect, would be better for our victory. That's not always the case; we should be glad when it is.

So I won't be raising a glass and toasting the fact that bin Laden's pretty face has two holes in it that the fish are now nibbling on at the bottom of the ocean. But I'll toast to the evil being brought to justice. I'll toast the steel in the belly of the country that pursued him. I'll toast the warriors who ended his reign of terror. I'll toast the other warriors, especially my friends, who thanks to 9/11 found themselves in unfriendly lands and died fighting his equally vile followers. And I'll toast the fact that, however many monsters might roam this earth seeking death and destruction, there's now one less monster to threaten my family.

And perhaps, in my weaker moments, I'll still think to myself, after remembering all the sorrow and ruin that Osama bin Laden wrought in his life: got you, you son of a bitch.

No comments: