Ever since Osama bin Laden’s death became generally known, the country’s mood has felt like spring break for grown-ups. In front of the White House, at Ground Zero, at the Phillies-Mets game, people were celiebrating. Strangers were hugging. In the long run, it might not turn out to be one of those events for which everyone recalls his wherabouts, but then, it might. (For the record, I was fast asleep.)
But then, the Vatican weighed in. Speaking as the Church’s official voice, Fr. Frederico Lombardi cautioned believers that a Christian “never rejeoices” at a man’s death. Really, Father, I remember thinking. Must you be such a wet blanket? I guess we’re supposed to eat our vegetables and drive fifty-five, too. It’s enough to make a man take up dominion theology.
But after a while, the funniest thing happened. Not celebrating bin Laden’s death began not to seem so burdensome anymore. Here’s why:
In truth, the bare fact of bin Laden’s death was the least of what made me happy. The greater part of my satisfaction by far came from knowing American arms and intelligence had triumphed in a contest with America’s enemies. For ten years, al-Qaeda and its supporters had been patting each other on the back, telling themselves they were smarter, more patient, and further-sighted than we were. No longer.
I also felt satisfaction in knowing that al-Qaeda lost a valuable figurehead. Yes, it had been a long time since bin Laden had exercised any real administrative leadership, but he — and his survival in the face of a multinational manhunt — had the greatest symbolic importance. To the credulous, they offered compelling evidence that God indeed sided with the Islamists.
I felt satisfaction in knowing he and his followers succumbed after a brief struggle. Not even Homer could make it into a glorious last stand. When you put up less of a fight than Uday and Qusay Hussein, you know you’ve had it.
Bin Laden’s death, the separation of his soul from his body, was incidental to any of these things. We could claim the same strategic and moral triumph by capturing him alive. Granted, killing him outright has spared us a tangle of legal issues — where to try bin Laden? Where to hold him in the meantime? Could we, in fact, put him to death following whatever due process we settled on? I am relieved these are all moot points; if that makes me an imperfect Christian, I suppose I’ll have to live with it. But as I said, that relief accounts for the smallest part of my happiness. The rest is strictly kosher.
Update: Matt Zoller Seitz describes the crowds at Ground Zero: If one picture is worth a thousand words, the reverse is also true:
There were engaged, ecstatic — and over time, increasingly tipsy — revelers. There were news vans and trucks with broadcast-quality cameras and bright lights and rumbling generators. There were roving reporters with notepads and handheld digital tape recorders. I saw people collecting video and audio with their iPhones. One woman circled the outer edge of the crowd, holding her iPad slightly above her head, getting a smooth tracking shot around the edges of the gathering and double-checking her framing by glancing up at the screen.
In some sectors of the designated celebration zone — a two-block area ringed by cops and barricades — witnesses to history appeared to outnumber participants.
Then again, the distinction between participants might be a false one. Nowadays just about everybody has the ability to record his or her life at any time, for any reason, via digital stills, video, audio. And there was a whole lot of recording going on last night. Three young men in kilts climbed on top of a bank of pay phones and gave an impromptu bagpipe concert; the strobe-flash illumination of shutterbugs was so intense that they might as well have been performing on the floor of a disco. There were people taking video and still photos of cops, construction workers, Marines, sailors and civilians wrapped in American flags or carrying signs. There were people taking pictures of the people taking pictures. And there were people taking pictures of the people taking pictures of the people taking pictures.
Clouds of pot smoke occasionally wafted through the scene, and as the celebration wore on, it became harder to move through the throng without accidentally kicking an empty beer bottle and sending it clattering down the street.
If you stood back and squinted at the crowd, hundreds of rectangles of electronic light seemed to bob like embers on a dark wave. People were showing each other their iPhones, sharing Twitter feeds, Facebook updates, uploaded and downloaded photos, YouTube clips, streaming video from CNN. They were discussing the coverage, repeating what they’d heard, saying what they did or didn’t believe.
Read the story of the Abottabad resident who unknowingly liveblogged our raid on bin Laden’s compound. This is the sort of thing that happens when villains hide out in suburbia.
World leaders react: Carmen Binladin, Osama’s sister, says he’d sooner have died than “face justice in a U.S. court.” To my great disappointment, Silvio Berlusconi played it straight, calling bin Laden’s death “a great result in the fight against evil.” If he can’t think of something quotably tasteless to say at a moment like this, what good is he?
It seems bin Laden used one of his wives as a shield. Bad form, sir.