Killing bin Laden: Cause for reflection, not celebration

(This is cross-posted at the Century Foundation’s Taking Note page)

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.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

14 thoughts on “Killing bin Laden: Cause for reflection, not celebration”

  1. Some of my friends wish that President Obama had been a little less somber, a little less celebratory

    I think you meant to type “a little more celebratory”

  2. I strongly disagree that burial at sea is ignominious. It’s been the fate of many brave sailors over the centuries. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer has this fine and well-known prayer of committal:
    “We therefore commit his body to the deep, to be turned into corruption, looking for the resurrection of the body, (when the Sea shall give up her dead,) and the life of the world to come, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who at his coming shall change our vile body, that it may be like his glorious body, according to the mighty working, whereby he is able to subdue all things to himself.”
    I trust that the US Navy gave bin Laden’s remains, within the parallel Islamic rite, the respect due to the body of any human, friend or enemy, saint or criminal. He was somebody’s son, somebody’s father. We dishonour ourselves by dancing on graves.

  3. Surely the traditional disrespectful means of disposing of the dead – what Restoration England did to the disinterred remains of Cromwell, for example – is dismemberment, distribution, and display.

    Given the alternatives, I think burial at sea was the sensible option. Cremation and scattering (probably also at sea) would also have worked, but might have been more offensive to Muslims.

  4. The kamikaze pilots in the Pacific theater whose bodies were recovered received burials at sea, with rituals becoming the officers they were. That was during World War II. Some sailors on board had a real problem with this being done. But done it was. That was the Navy’s values at work.

  5. (Harold): “I’m not joining the people high-five-ing in front of the White House or shouting USA! USA! at major league baseball.
    Of course.
    (Harold): “In today’s world, we must remind ourselves that security, peace, and prosperity are rarely achieved at gunpoint.
    Ultimately, that’s the argument for a government which limits its activities to an initial assignment of title, definition and enforcement of the laws of contract, protection of necessarily public property (environmental law), and suppression of its competition in the extortion business. See James Wimberley’s post on Hernando de Soto. Consider the treatment of the GM and Chrysler bondholders.

    Burial at sea. Good idea. No memorial site. Only thing better would be a shrine containing the embalmed remains and an intense gamma source.

  6. `There was a time when Iran held our Embassy, that I (sorta’) advocated capturing the Ayatollah, putting him in a cage on the Mall, and selling “pokes with a stick” for a quarter, until we had our people and stuff back.

    I’m a bit more reformed now; in fact, I trust our courts, and want KSM tried in criminal courts.

    Another point, the proper treatment of his body was to deny complaints from many Muslims of all factions.

  7. I agree that Osama’s burial at sea was ignominious. For people who die at sea, and those associated with the sea–fishermen, mariners–burial at sea is honorable. But Bin Laden had no such association; he was purely a creature of the land, and tossing him in the ocean is as much as to say, We don’t want you sharing our territory, even in death.

  8. Burying him at sea seems the least-bad of the available options. We couldn’t exactly give his body back to his comrades in arms…

  9. Amen, and amen.

    I cannot say that I am unsatisfied that Osama bin Ladin is dead, and dead at our hand. But neither can I say it’s cause for jubilation: Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead is fine on the (sound)stage. It’s unbecoming in a real-life context. John Donne said, “… each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind.” I do not mourn Osama bin Ladin. I do mourn the necessity that forced our fellow citizens to leave hearth and home and put themselves in harm’s way to dispose of this malignant bit of inhumanity.

    As far as the disposal of the remains at sea goes, we apparently asked governments around the region if they would accept the remains. All declined. What choice remains? Cremation and scattering the ashes, or disposal at sea. I think being culturally sensitive was a reasonable thing to do.

  10. Malcolm: “Consider the treatment of the GM and Chrysler bondholders. ”

    IIRC, they agreed to the terms, except for some who didn’t, who took it to court and lost.

  11. Barry,
    Regardless, we have become a banana republic where you can lose your assets, regardless of what yout title documents and the statutes say, if the son of the chief of police wants your car or your house. Not a sensible way to encourage investment.

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