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Osama bin Ladin Is Dead

Nothing I am going to write here is likely to be an original thought and you could get the same musings from a dozen other sources. Forgive me. While you may not need to read it, I need to write it.

Last night, television was repeatedly interrupted to inform the viewers that there would be an important announcement from the White House any minute. After ten o'clock at night, this could either be something wonderful or catastrophic. As my friend Melissa put it when she called me to inform me to turn on the television (as she had on September 11, 2001), we likely would have been immediately told if another country had declared war on us or if there had been a terrorist attack on American soil, so those were out of contention. As the reporters were waiting to say anything of substance, this meant that we either captured or killed Osama bin Laden, as far as she was concerned. There could be no other reason for all this lead-up so late at night. I held back from hoping, but her logic was solid enough and proved right on the latter count.

I felt a rush of stunned exalting when I saw the words "Osama bin Laden dead" on the chyron of the station I was watching, then looked askance at myself. I do not applaud death, even as there is no question bin Laden caused thousands of deaths and would have caused more. It is simple to play armchair quarterback to fictional characters, but reality is infinitely more nuanced. This is not Batman getting rid of the Joker once and for all. I settled on being glad bin Laden was now dead (in that he can no longer directly act as a rallying force for al Qaeda and in that it is a profound psychological win for the United States, for whom bin Laden is a personification of evil) but I am not grateful we killed him. Though I am certain that bin Laden would let it be no other way, I would have preferred him to be captured and put on trial at an international court. I wish American could show the world that we represent justice, even in dealing with a man who killed thousands of our citizens and wished to kill many more. Slaying him - though necessary in the situation beyond a doubt - shows that our country resorts to killing. To have bin Laden shackled and imprisoned for his crimes for the rest of his life, to have him be formally condemned and sentenced by the United Nations, demythologizes him.

Upon taking custody of the body - to use Obama's slightly off-putting phrasing - it seems bin Laden was summarily buried at sea in accordance with religious custom since no country would allow him to be buried on their soil. I know that many have called for bin Laden's head on a pike or the corpse to be strung up from a girder at Ground Zero, truly medieval demonstrations of what we do to our enemies. And though I am aware that a lack of a body will fuel conspiratorial speculation as to the circumstances of his death, I prefer to think we were respectful with the remains (though I did hear one commentator crassly suggest that "buried at sea" was a euphemism for "thrown out of a helicopter"). That is what we do with our enemies, not desecrate their bodies like barbarians. The last thing we as a country want is to make him into a martyr. At the same time, I long held the fear that bin Laden had died of kidney disease in some cave and this nation would never get the closure of knowing he was eliminated from our nightmares. He would be our boogeyman long after he would reasonably have died of old age, so I am glad we were able to put our hands on him, even postmortem.

This does not end the War on Terror, much as I have long hated that term. His death is a powerful and emotional blow, but bin Laden was just one man. Even now, tin-pot dictators are scuffling to see who will replace him. The United States seemed to have killed his second-in-commands on a weekly basis. His death, if anything, recharges al Qaeda with rage, not because he is their leader but because he is a likewise powerful image to them. Images are not so simple to kill.

There is concern that this will spawn new attacks. In President Obama's speech, he did say that he ordered bin Laden's killing and some terrorist groups have already called for retribution. Bin Laden is not the leader of a country or of a people (Obama states rightly that "Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer of Muslims.") and so is not protected by the international agreements that keep despots alive, but it makes me fidget to think that the president needs to give such orders.

This is neither an end - except for bin Laden - or a beginning but another point on a long continuum. This makes our relationship with Pakistan tenser, until it is revealed the extent to which the Pakistani government assisted us in his capture. We still will not be able to bring a bottle of water on an airplane (if anything, the TSA will become even more insufferable with their travel restrictions) and this will not make our oil cheaper (yes, I did hear someone claim this, under the inventive logic that the whole of OPEC will be scared of us because we managed to kill one brown person after nearly a decade of hunting him). Most in the Middle East and every Muslim I have ever encountered regarded Osama bin Laden as a mass murderer, so do not believe otherwise for a moment. I understand that some people need to celebrate his death and do not fault them their reaction. 9/11 struck a blow to our national identity and shifted the course of our national consciousness, but vengeance won't right that. As my friend Cat (whose father was killed in the World Trade Center) said, we had bin Laden's body but she will never have her father's body back. When I saw foreign people on the television rejoicing at the murders of our countrymen almost a decade ago, I felt anger and disgust that is not washed away by watching Americans dance at Ground Zero now. Celebrate bin Laden's killing if that is your inkling, but be mindful that you do not let yourself become what you wish purged from the world.

Xen is sending the text of these essays back in time to his prepubescent self using advanced technology and fairy dust. That you can manage to read them as well is only a glitch in the servers.
Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings.

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