There are so many things that make the killing of Osama bin Laden absolutely delicious: the hypocrisy of his being nabbed in a million-dollar, suburban compound even as he sent others to their deaths; the fear he must have felt as his bedroom door burst open and he found himself staring down the barrel of an American weapon held by an American soldier; the ignominious end his remains met dumped overboard into the Arabian Sea like so much unwanted rubbish.
Yes, it might have been nice if he'd been taken alive the perp walk in the orange jumpsuit makes an awfully sweet picture. But then you've got the years-long mess of a trial and the question of what you do with him once he's been inevitably found guilty. Best to whack him quickly and pitilessly and let the national touchdown dance begin.
That celebration has been playing out for days and, despite President Obama's remark on 60 Minutes that Americans "don't spike the football," it will probably go on for a little while still. Yet underneath it there's also been a vague unease, at least for some people. What kind of species stages a coast to coast carnival because one of its members no matter what kind of monster he was gets shot in the head? There's satisfaction, yes; relief sure. But fireworks and parades? Even Steven Colbert, who yields to no one in his willingness to push limits, made some self-aware jokes about all the merry-making.
My colleagues Bonnie Rochman and Maia Szalavitz have written at length about the brain science and psychology of revenge, and significantly how parents should explain all the hoopla to their kids. In Time's May 12, 1980 issue long before there was a bin Laden to despise essayist Lance Morrow wrote elegantly about the same ideas. That time, the news was America's failed mission to free its hostages in Iran, which led to the ghoulish tableau of officials in Tehran happily displaying the charred remains of the U.S. servicemen who died in the effort:
"Such scenes open a little trap door at the base of the brain. From that ancient root cellar they summon up dark, flapping fantasies of revenge. During the six-month imprisonment of their hostages, Americans have on the whole reacted with a surprising forbearance toward the Iranians. But beneath the surface they have marinated in an odd, atavistic cross-cultural rage ... Dark impulses that normally stay below, like Ahab's harpooners, begin to straggle up on deck."
In the case of bin Laden, the harpooners had to stay below-deck for a full decade. Can we blame ourselves if we're doing a jig in the sunshine now?
But there are other ways to justify the unalloyed, unembarrassed joy we are experiencing at what, in a difference context, would be called a contract killing and to worry not a whit that it makes us look like primitives. Indeed, those reasons are rooted in some of our highest, noblest constructs: the law.
Start with the fact that Osama bin Laden's biggest crime Sept. 11 is in fact a sort of rolling crime. It was committed on a single morning and claimed the overwhelming share of its victims within an hour or two, but, as I wrote earlier this week, it continues to kill, adding more victims every year as first-responders and others who worked at Ground Zero succumb to diseases they contracted through their exposure to the toxic debris.
There's historical precedent for such killing on layaway. It's impossible to say how many people died in the wars Adolf Hitler launched, but the global body count for the entirety of World War II has been put at some 54 million. Does it become 54-million-and-one when, as sometimes happens, a modern-day farmer or fisherman stumbles across an unexploded bomb that was dropped six decades ago and that suddenly goes off? And if it's shown to be a German bomb, does that death get added to Hitler's total?
Brian Leiter, professor of law, philosophy and human values at the University of Chicago School of Law, thinks it's a mistake to draw too straight a line between the attacks of 9/11 and the later dying at least in terms of criminal culpability. "Bin Laden clearly acted with intent to murder, but the later deaths were not the intended ones and may not even have been forseeable," he says. That, of course, is how the instructions would be read to a jury, but Leiter acknowledges too that there's more going on this week than courtoom rules: "This is closer to a collective reaction to retributive justice. There is a kind of emotional cleansing when the wrongdoers get what they deserve even if no legal philosophers have ever written that celebrating in the streets over that fact is a good idea."
Anita L. Allen, professor of law and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law is a little more forgiving: "It's 100 percent understandable that you feel relief when a source of fear is eliminated," she says. "When the fear was collective, the relief will be collective and the joy will be collective too."
It also works against bin Laden that he was, by all accounts, perfectly sane not sane in the faking-charm-and-normalcy-while-seething-underneath way but truly, coolly in complete possession of all of his marbles. In the eyes of the law, lucidity can mean culpability.
"What you had with bin Laden was this spoiled billionaire's son who decided to lead a cause and who had very little skin in the game himself," says Allen. "It's both his coolness and the fact that he could have used his resources to have a much more positive impact on the world that makes him that much more condemnable, that much more despicable."
Important too, of course, was the scale of bin Laden's killing. Sept. 11 was not the first time he took lives by the bushel, but it was his masterwork. It's a hard truth among many theorists at least the absolutists that if all life is precious, then killing one person is the same as killing a thousand, and killing a president or prime minister is the same as killing a cashier during a stick-up at a convenience store. But the absolutists, again, are not the people on the streets nor even the people writing the laws.
"The criminal code is not entirely insensitive to this," says Leiter. "Killing police officers or children gets you a much stiffer penalty than other kinds of murders. Similarly, you get a lot less free speech latitude when you threaten a presidential candidate than you do when you threaten someone else. The same is true when you kill hundreds of people as opposed to one."
A similar kind of sliding scale applies too of the reactions that follow the punishment of the killers. Even the families of victims tend to walk out of the death chamber quietly and solemnly after they watch the murderer of a loved one being executed. But when Hitler committed suicide, there was dancing in the streets; ditto bin Laden. In these cases, the phenomenon is less moral than mathematical.
"Utilitarians tell you that moral good means maximizing the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people," says Allen. "When some bad force is eliminated, we feel better." And we feel better still when we celebrate that fact.
Ultimately, the highest goal of any legal system is to improve the lives of the people living under it. Here, retribution plays a role, but less of one than the simple power of deterrence. Osama bin Laden himself has been deterred from re-offending in the most effective way possible. The larger question is whether future zealots and kooks will be dissuaded from following his lead after the events of the past week.
"Bin laden may have been a unique case," says Leiter. "On the other hand, if the United States is willing to pursue people for 10 years, track them down and kill them, it may deter at least rational people."
If what follows that death is a paroxysm of celebration in which the image and memory of the person who dreamed of being a world-transforming figure is simply ground into the street along with the wet confetti and the spilled champagne, the lesson may be more memorable still. So party on, America for a while longer, at least.