There is now dancing in the streets on the news that Osama bin Laden has at last been shot in the head and buried at sea. Both the partiers and the parties responsible offer assurances that justice is done. For my part, I neither share in the general rejoicing nor in the universal opinion that bin Laden's death is a good turn of events. Nor do I think it's a bad thing - I'm entirely indifferent to its moral implications, if it has any at all.
For one thing, it seems medieval to rejoice in anyone's death (with the possible exception of Jesus').
But then, bin Laden was a medieval person, presumably one who took his scriptures literally, sine grano salis. For another, it seems medieval to award anyone the sort of demonic status he achieved in the American imagination. He was, after all, a human being - neither more nor less - with no more power for evil than each one of us has, though clearly he possessed a greater than ordinary penchant to exercise his spite. Admittedly, given the way I look, I wouldn't take my chances hawking Chinese encyclopedias at the front door of his Pakistani compound (although I might stand a chance hawking good old American-made weaponry).
"I got a helluva deal on an IED-proof Studebaker."
But if I looked more like him, neither would I take my chances with the celebrants on any American street.
It's difficult to see how justice has been done, as the President claims. It's quite natural to feel a moral satisfaction in the death of one who masterminded the deaths of so many others. But if by justice the President simply means retribution for an evil deed, an eye for an eye, then the American military response has more than settled that score over a decade, assuming that a single Iraqi or Afghani life is equivalent to one American life. If he means that bin Laden's life is recompense for all the lives (American lives, of course) lost in this past decade, he awards the man a moral and mythical status he doesn't deserve. To say that the death of a single person accomplishes justice seems unwittingly to diminish the general loss the world has already sustained.
It is also difficult to see, as Obama claims, how the world is a better place now. The State Department's cautions to Americans abroad give the lie to any notion that it's a safer one. And in spite of his infrequent video productions, bin Laden had already been marginalized as a political presence for fear of his life. He had become an idea, an inspiration, but then he still is - perhaps even more so now that he's dead. Other than a fleeting sense of emotional satisfaction, what has actually been set to rights in the world?
By now, he is a martyr among his followers and very good political capital for the Obama administration. Nothing will change, really. We just have a new trading card - the President can trump his opponents at home for a while, and al Qaeda will trade his death for more recruits, until some wiser, happier revolution in the Middle East gives the lie to the fundamentalisms of religious militancy and American exceptionalism, and at last unseats both al Qaeda and an unwanted American presence.
In the meantime, let's not forget that from the start it's really been all about defending a God-given way of life.