There was something quite Roman in the killing of Osama bin Laden, something reminiscent of the manner in which the Romans eventually dealt with a rogue’s gallery of charismatic tribal enemies—Spartacus, Vercingetorix, Jugurtha, Mithridates, Boudica, and others—all of whom claimed victory over the Romans and invulnerability from their global reach, only to be eventually defeated, forced to kill themselves, executed, or killed in battle.
The killing reminds us that there are official rules we cite and unofficial ones that, thankfully, we actually follow. Pakistan is to be praised publicly as a partner, even as privately it is recognized as the sort of enemy that allows bin Laden to build a mansion in a suburb inhabited by its retired military officers. So we swiftly invade the country, kill him, and then praise the Pakistanis for their help—with full knowledge that bin Laden couldn’t have been there for years without Pakistani government assistance. I have no idea whether disseminating such disinformation is sustainable.
The bin Laden hit came at an opportune time: the U.S. had been talking of decline and “leading from behind,” and yet just pulled off a commando raid beyond the capability of most other countries—at the same time that the Arab world has gone topsy-turvy, and its half-dozen ongoing rebellions and insurgencies have diverted the attention of the Arab Street. So Osama is dead and in Davy Jones’ Locker, while crowds chant against Assad and Qaddafi. The success of the operation should also raise “if you are going to take Tripoli, take Tripoli” questions, and may remind President Obama to finish his ill-conceived Libyan adventure, which can only succeed by achieving, either de facto or de jure, the mission objective of regime change.
The mission was a targeted hit, but we describe it as a firefight, apparently to preclude the sort of legal mess that has ensued with Khalid Sheik Mohammed—or the ongoing saga of a captured Saddam Hussein, which stood in such contrast with the abrupt fate of his sons. Death ends legal issues, and in our postmodern, out-of-sight, out-of-mind world it is apparently as acceptable to act as judge, jury, and executioner of terrorist leaders (and rogue leaders like Qaddafi) as it is considered illegal and immoral to detain or water-board them. Killing bin Laden and his son, or Qaddafi’s son, is permissible, it seems, as long as we cite the circumstances of an ongoing war or a firefight, and maintain that we are not doing what we are in fact doing.
It’s also easier to conduct assassinations abroad if the Commander-in-Chief is liberal. This neutralizes criticism from the media, universities, the legal community, and Hollywood. Obama the law professor can assassinate bin Laden in Pakistan, dump his body in the ocean, and with first-person emphasis boast of our brilliant mission in a way Bush the Texan could not get away with—in the same manner that killing the son of Qaddafi, and the effort to kill Qaddafi himself, are not really forbidden targeted assassinations under Obama, and in the manner that Guantánamo, tribunals, renditions, preventive detentions, Predators, wiretaps, and intercepts that so bothered Senator Obama and others are now deemed essential. This paradox is just the way it is; the media will report a liberal president’s Predator drone attack or commando hit as done with reluctance and without other viable choices. Were a conservative leader to take the same actions, he would be portrayed as a trigger-happy war-monger reveling in the violence. Thus, the street celebrations that ensued when news of bin Laden’s death broke are seen by the media as a new unity inspired by Obama. Three years ago, they would have been seen as macabre triumphalism.