Monday, May 2, 2011

Random thoughts on the death of bin Laden

Just last month at Passover, we read about how God led the Israelites across the parted Red Sea, then allowed the waters to swallow up Pharaoh's pursuing army. Referencing Talmudic teaching, our haggadah says, "Our rabbis taught: When the Egyptian armies were drowning in the sea, the Heavenly Hosts broke out in songs of jubilation. God silenced them and said, 'My creatures are perishing, and you sing praises?'" I am reminded of this when I see college students waving American flags and shouting "USA! USA! USA!" with pumping fists. This, in spite of the fact that they were not cognizant of what 9/11 meant when it happened, and what this act of delayed retribution means now. This isn't about America kicking ass. It's merely our volley in an unwinnable game that the Israelis and Palestinians have been playing for many years.

Which is not to say that I don't applaud the mission or its outcome. I do. I'm glad he's dead, and I'm glad he wasn't allowed to die of natural causes or disease. He deserved to meet his fate by an act of man. I am not in favor of capital punishment, but Osama bin Laden had perpetrated crimes against humanity and he deserved not the mercy of humanity. His targeting of the West for the wrongs his own people had suffered was just an updating of Hitler's targeting of Jews for the wrongs committed against Germany after World War I. There are bad people and there are evil people. A bad person might be reformed; evil must be expunged.

There are many on both sides who are eager to politicize this act. I have seen the left smile smugly that this happened under Obama's watch and not under Bush's. I have seen the right declare that Obama did nothing; all credit must go to the Navy Seals. Both sides are right and wrong - and ultimately wrong even to politicize it. I will say that Obama had a better chance of scoring this trophy because he was more focused on it than Bush, who gave up on Afghanistan early (no doubt chastened by Russia's failed war there) in favor of Saddam Hussein, an easier yet less relevant target. But the work that led to this daring act had been going on for many years, long before Obama even thought of running for the Presidency. In his speech, he could have been more generous to the efforts of others; his repeated use of "I" was noticeable.

And yet, it was also appropriate. After all, had the mission failed, it would have been incumbent upon him to stand before the American people last night and accept the blame. This is where the Commander in Chief earns his money, which is why Donald Trump is indeed such a joke. Someone has to make a decision that has to do with life and death, not just dollars and cents. True, Obama did not pull the trigger that separated part of bin Laden's skull from his head, but he did pull the trigger on the mission itself. He weighed the information, the risks, the opportunity, and he was satisfied that this was the time, this was the place, this was the plan. And he was right. Abbottabad is now America's Entebbe. It took brains and guts to execute it, and it also took brains and guts to green-light it.

The world without Osama bin Laden is still a dangerous world. And our enemies are beyond the tools of diplomacy. Like it or not, we are in a war of attrition against terror networks large and small, all over the world. Killing bin Laden did not make us stronger or safer; reprisals are not only possible but expected. Like in an old Western, all we did was settle an old score. It could well have been Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name who pulled the trigger (in fact, due to safety concerns, I am sure we will never know the name of the person or persons who delivered the fatal shot or shots; unlike Boston Corbett, who killed John Wilkes Booth, or Jack Ruby, who shot Lee Harvey Oswald, the avenger's name will likely be withheld from history).

I know someone who was killed on 9/11. I've been to 9/11 funerals, sat in 9/11 shivas, watched 9/11 footage with 9/11 mourners. Today, that person is still dead. Her children have lived longer without her in their lives than with her. The dead can't help us now. Then as now, it is the survivors - all of us - who must carry on. If the world is to become better, it can't be done only by expunging the evil. We must also activate the good. That's why, while this act was important, while this act was courageous, while this act was even necessary, it is the next act that will define us as Americans and as a civilization.

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