Killing bin Laden: Cause for Reflection, Not Celebration

I’m grateful to the men and women of our intelligence services and armed forces who tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden. Their bravery and methodical professionalism is remarkable.

To tell you the truth, I’m glad we just killed him, that he did not survive the firefight with our forces. Dragging him back to Guantanamo or wherever for interrogation and some sort of legal proceeding promised to be either a ghastly global spectacle or an unworthy show trial. As Hannah Arendt once put things: He didn’t want to share this planet with me, and I don’t want to share it with him, either. Ignominious burial at sea is a fitting end for him-not because he defied American power, but because he was an apocalyptic mass murderer. Good riddance to him.

Despite my grim satisfaction at the outcome, I’m not joining the people high-five-ing in front of the White House or shouting USA! USA! at major league baseball. Some of my friends wish that President Obama had been a little less somber, a little more celebratory, in his announcement last night of bin Laden’s death. I don’t feel that way.

This was a valued victory, but nothing to celebrate. A man was shot twice in the head and dumped in the ocean. Others were killed, too. It was a bad day’s work that needed to be done, not an occasion for gloating.

It’s predictable and understandable that people are fascinated by intelligence sources and methods, and by science-fiction tactics and gear used by our special operations forces. I’m fascinated by that stuff, too. There is something unsettling about this fascination, too. Black ops have their place, but our worst military and counterterrorism challenges won’t be addressed that way. Warfare is not a remote control affair conducted by drones and surgical kill teams. We have learned to our sorrow, repeatedly, that war has a way of bringing home its grimmer and grimier human realities.

There is something subtly corrupting about too-readily embracing and celebrating our impressive paramilitary capabilities to find and to annihilate specific “high-value human targets.” I’m glad we have these capabilities, but it’s a little too tempting to launch decapitating strikes at a military adversary, a little too tempting to destroy a command bunkers not long after (say) Libyan strongman just happens to pass through. At the most tactical level, we are unwise, as a relatively non-hardened society, to dabble in such things.

Here at home, America came together for a brief moment after 9/11. We then squandered the moment. Rattled by the atrocities in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, we tangibly diminished both our world position and ourselves through our dubious venture in Iraq. Given a real whiff of fear, our government enjoyed broad public support in violating core constitutional principles in counter-terrorism efforts.

Our most notorious nemesis is dead and gone. I hope this provides us the space and the moment to find our bearings. I hope we spend the next decade being more intelligent and less bellicose in engaging others in the world. Efforts such as President George W. Bush’s PEPFAR initiatives did more to improve our global standing than any hit team or drone ever could. I’m not sure he fully understood that. I hope and believe President Obama does.

In today’s world, we must remind ourselves that security, peace, and prosperity are rarely achieved at gunpoint, however bravely and skillfully Sunday’s necessary raid was accomplished.

[Cross-posted at SameFacts.com]

Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.