My reaction to the death of Osama bin Laden is decidedly mixed. It is good that justice has been served. His being at large was a festering sore. No one who commits a crime should be unpunished and it is hard to imagine what punishment is appropriate for someone responsible for the deaths of 3,000 civilians.
I am not a proponent of the death penalty, but there is a part of me that is glad that he is dead. So I am with those are relieved that he is dead.
But more of me is saddened than gladdened. I can still feel the pain welling inside of me as I think about the bright blue day in September, seeing the Twin Towers smoking in the distant Manhattan skyline from the top of the Hofstra library, weeping each morning as I read the papers, viewing the mournful notices in Washington Square Park, officiating at the funeral of a young firefighter lost in the burning building—all this and more, welling up again as I think about the mad monster now dead in Pakistan.
This isn’t cause for celebration, though. All life is precious, even one as vile and twisted as bin Laden’s. The celebrations, while understandable, are unsettling, like tailgate parties outside penitentiaries on the night of an execution.
And bin Laden’s death more resembles an execution than it does death in combat. It was a targeted killing, not a shooting that occurred in combat. It isn’t even clear whether there was an attempt to capture bin Laden. Comments from both presidents Bush and Obama veered close to ordering an assassination by authorizing targeted killings.
It was because bin Laden didn’t represent a government or wear a uniform that there is some lack of clarity about whether he should be treated as an ordinary criminal or as a legitimate target of war. It is clear when war is declared against a country who the enemy is; it isn’t so clear when we say we are in a war against terrorism. But in this case, after the 9/11 attack, there was no doubt that war had been declared against us.
This leads me to land on the side of treating bin Laden little different than enemy soldiers. The heads of enemy forces are legitimate targets in warfare. Whether bin Laden was killed by a bombing or by a soldier’s rifle shot makes little difference.
The complications of what to do with a captured bin Laden were so enormous that killing him may have been the best choice available. Still it makes me queasy. What door has been opened when we deny due process? Does this give license to target other murderers? This isn’t vigilante justice exactly—it is the government giving the orders—but it does subvert the notion of justice by avoiding any trial whatsoever.
War crime trials after WWII and more recently in regards to the Balkans and Rwanda demonstrate that justice can be carried out. But those circumstances were different. The war against Germany and Japan was over and no longer a threat while bin Laden continued to inspire terrorists who plot daily to kill us.
I may have made the same decision as Obama, but I wouldn’t call it a good day for America. It is a somber day for reflection. I can’t rejoice in anyone’s death, although I can feel relief. I can’t celebrate the killing of someone, even though he was my mortal enemy, although I can feel that rough justice was done.
I wholeheartedly support Nassau County’s response to bin Laden’s death. This, it seems to me, is the proper moral stance. I quote from an email sent by the county executive: Ed Mangano: “I have extended Eisenhower Park operating hours from dusk until 10:00 p.m. this evening for residents seeking to honor victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on America. Nassau County will donate candles for residents seeking to attend the vigil. Although there is no formal program, this evening provides an opportunity for veterans, families and friends to mourn their loved ones. This is a small act we undertake to honor the innocent victims of the September 11th attacks on our nation. It is important to have a respectful location where we can grieve and where people can come to honor the lives of loved ones they lost on September 11, 2001.”