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Liberally Speaking

With somber reflection

May 5, 2011

By Steve Mount

It was getting late on Sunday night when I heard a rumor that President Barack Obama was going to make an announcement on TV within a few minutes. I quickly tuned to CNN to see if the report was true. It seemed to be — Wolf Blitzer was telling viewers that the President would be speaking to the nation from the East Room of the White House “any minute now.”

CNN was very careful not to speculate what the announcement was about, so my mind started to race. Such an announcement is very unusual, and reserved for big (and usually bad) news. Did something happen to the President’s family? Is the Vice President dead? Did terrorists strike somewhere? Was there a tragedy with our troops overseas?

Checking Internet news feeds, reports that Osama bin Laden was dead started to become more and more frequent. And finally CNN had enough strong sources that they could say that this was, indeed, the big news.

When the President finally came on the screen, his announcement was almost anti-climactic, though the scant details he provided were interesting: bin Laden was expertly killed by U.S. forces operating in Pakistan. His body had been taken into custody by those forces. The identity of bin Laden was definite. No Americans lost their lives in the process.

CNN was also reporting that there were cheering crowds just outside the fence surrounding the White House. Just off-camera, I could hear emotionally raw and off-tune renditions of The Star-Spangled Banner being belted out. There was obvious joy in the news. Watching, I knew that this was good news, for America and the world.

Beyond that raw and emotionally-informed knowledge, though, I wasn’t so sure how I felt. It was only after discussing it with some friends and hearing what they had to say that I could begin to sort it out.

It feels odd to celebrate the death of a person. In our culture, we are taught to value life so highly, above almost anything else. I know this is not a universal value (though it should be). Bin Laden himself could easily be described as someone who valued politics over human life. He could even be rightly described as a misanthrope. But even given that, should I feel joy in his death?

I recall feeling the same sort of confusion when Saddam Hussein was executed in Iraq in 2006. Here was this tyrant, this despicable human being, responsible for war and the deaths of thousands of innocents, reduced to a cowering shell, stripped of his power and influence … and the best we can do is kill him?

I’m convinced there are people who are better off dead. But it is much easier to be sure of this in the abstract. I wonder how evolved we really are if destruction of life is our best answer to these people.

The details of the bin Laden killing place his death in a slightly different category – he died in a firefight, not in front of a firing squad. Part of me wanted to see him captured, tried, and imprisoned. But if he’d been captured, his detention and trial would have been epic in scope and undoubtedly circus-like in ways I can only imagine.

I must conclude, then, that we are better off with him shot dead and buried at sea.

I’m just not sure joyful celebration is the proper response.

Another friend called it a Pyrrhic victory. We have already lost so many lives to bin Laden and al Qaeda, both as a nation and a species. Will we lose even more now that he is gone? Hopefully we have cut off the head of the snake. But the snake could end up being like the mythological hydra, with two or three new heads growing back where one was before.

To ensure that terrorism dies, we must not just be rid of its sponsors. We must change the minds of those who follow. Perhaps a means to that end is not to celebrate bin Laden’s death with cheers and song, but to reflect on it somberly.

Steve Mount has been a Williston resident since 1996. He is a software engineer at GE Healthcare and is devoted to his family, his country and his Constitution. You can reach Steve at steve@saltyrain.com or read his blog at http://saltyrain.com/ls.