Joanna Weiss

Revenge, justice, or just an end?

Hillary Clinton, at the White House, reacts to unfolding events in Pakistan. Hillary Clinton, at the White House, reacts to unfolding events in Pakistan. (AFP Photo / White House)
By Joanna Weiss
Globe Columnist / May 8, 2011

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THE TREE-CLIMBING seemed a bit much. So did the flag-waving, the “U.S.A.’’-chanting, and the whooping in the streets. The celebrations, at the news of Osama bin Laden’s death, felt inappropriate somehow. Yes, America’s youth deserved a release. On the other hand, someone had died.

Yet as the hand-wringing dragged on last week — over whether bin Laden was armed, or whether it would have been ideal to capture him alive — I’ve had to admit to a certain bloodthirstiness, myself. It turns out I didn’t want him to go to trial, explain himself on a witness stand, face some dignified jury of his “peers.’’ I like the idea of him dead.

There are plenty of practical reasons why bin Laden’s death is good for the United States, notes Stephen Nathanson, a philosophy professor at Northeastern University and author of “Terrorism and the Ethics of War.’’ Imprisoning bin Laden could have sparked retailatory attacks. A drawn-out trial and public execution would have delivered its own sort of martyrdom, ideal to bin Laden’s goals.

But the raid that brought bin Laden down satisifes an emotional need, as well — and I suspect that many people, like me, have struggled with precisely what that means. I don’t take war lightly. I oppose the death penalty. I try to teach my kids not to kill bugs.

And, like many Americans, I’m prone to self-reflection about what kind of people we are, compared to those who want to destroy us. Explaining why he won’t release photos of bin Laden dead, President Obama said we aren’t the type of nation that needs to “spike the football,’’ gloating over victory and death.

But we want to be the type of nation that defends itself from harm, that follows through on its promises, no matter how long it takes. The White House’s first account of the raid was tailor-made to fit that need: a team of Jack Bauers blasting through enemy fire, the bad guy doing one last dastardly act by using his wife as a shield. (I’m half-surprised we didn’t hear that bin Laden had seemed dead, then roused himself for one more cinematic final stand.)

By Thursday, those details had changed. The White House was saying that bin Laden was unarmed, though with a weapon within reach. The woman wasn’t a shield; she charged the Americans. The battle was one-sided, with shots fired at the Navy Seals only at the start.

Does that matter? Not really. It certainly doesn’t diminish the courage and skill of the Seals. And it doesn’t diminish the justness of bin Laden’s demise. Even the Dalai Lama has suggested that he’s not losing sleep over this death. “If something is serious and it is necessary to take counter-measures, you have to take counter-measures,’’ he said at the University of Southern California last week.

It’s hard to know which counter-measures would have been ideal, Nathanson said, because bin Laden didn’t meet our historic definition of an enemy. His death was a little like an assassination, a little like vigilante justice, and a little like war. In life, he was partly a criminal, partly a combatant.

And, yes, he was a human being. Seeing old pictures of him, I’m still struck by the soft features of his face. If you didn’t know better, you’d think he had gentle eyes. He was a family man whose business was ruthless slaughter.

I don’t particularly need to see pictures of him dead. The photo I prefer — the one I’ve stared at endlessly — is the view of the Situation Room as administration leaders monitored the raid. There is no joy in their faces, no bloodlust. Just gravity, concern, and determination to get the job done.

And now that it’s done? Celebration or no, Nathanson cautions over feeling too much satisfaction. Bin Laden’s death, he said, seems to satisfy the myth of action movies and spy novels, “where the bad guy is killed and somehow taken care of and then you go home. But real life isn’t like that.’’

No, it’s not. It’s not closure or safety. But it’s still an ending of sorts. Perhaps that’s what we’ve been celebrating: not a death but a milestone, a chance, after all we’ve been through, to finally turn the page.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at