Decapitating the Head of the Snake: bin Laden and Our Inner Avenger

Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan referred to killing Osama bin Laden as “decapitating the head of the snake known as al Qaida.” Bloodthirsty choice of words, especially considering that decapitation has been one of al Qaeda’s preferred modes of execution, most notoriously, Daniel Pearl at the likely hands of 9/11 “mastermind” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

In the past, when humans were beheaded as punishment, the instrument of death was usually an axe or guillotine. Leave it to members of al Qaeda to take throat cutting to extremes. Perhaps they hoped Allah would accept a victim thus butchered as a sacrificial offering.

But inviting the comparison to al Qaeda by using decapitation as an image may have been Brennan’s point. It’s as if he were saying: we shot him in cold blood, but at least we didn’t decapitate him like al Qaeda.

Speaking of barbarism, Focal Points readers are aware that I’ve been questioning what seemed like the cold-blooded killing of bin Laden. Upon learning, again from Brennan, of the fear that bin Laden may have donned a suicide vest, which was theoretically possible while the SEALs swept the compound, I’ve withdrawn my objections on that count.

Legal reservations, such as acting on information gained under torture (of course, those raising that objection conveniently forget that heretofore they’ve adhered to the conviction that information obtained during torture isn’t trustworthy). More to the point is political assassination as, at the New Yorker Jeffrey Toobin reminds us.

. . . it’s worth noting that the apparently universal acclaim for the killing [of bin Laden] represents a major shift in American perceptions of such actions. Following the revelations of C.I.A. assassination plots by the Church Committee, in the nineteen-seventies, President Ford issued Executive Order 11905 (later 12333), which stated, No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.

But, personally, this author is most disturbed by the celebration over a killing, the likes of which he’s never witnessed in the United States. It likely surpasses public reaction to Hitler’s death. As I previously wrote

How does Americans celebrating bin Laden’s killing look to the rest of the world? An NBA player, of all people, has an idea.

[Chris] Douglas-Roberts [was] disturbed by the ensuing celebration. It reminded him of the response in Afghanistan — which was also captured on television — following 9/11. “We just looked like the Afghan people, a decade later,” he said.

Still, that doesn’t absolve myself and those who share my view from taking a look in the mirror as well. At Guernica, Noam Chomsky writes:

We might ask ourselves how we would be reacting if Iraqi commandos landed at George W. Bush’s compound, assassinated him, and dumped his body in the Atlantic. . . . his crimes vastly exceed bin Laden’s.

Would we be big enough to contain the glee welling up in us?

Whether or not we’re willing and able to confront our inner avenger is up to us. But, it’s imperative that we refrain from celebrating for the record lest we reduce ourselves to the level of those publicly gloating over bin Laden’s killing.