The Death of Osama bin Laden
Eleven years ago, on May 2, 2011, President Obama announced that the U.S. military had killed Osama bin Laden, carrying out the sentence he had written for himself by organizing the attacks on September 11, 2001.
After the attacks, there was general wonder about what could have motivated them. This arose from our tendency to take for granted the American Revolution, from its inception the most powerful force in the world, which transforms everything it touches. Bin Laden was one of those who did not like the transformation. This should not have surprised us, because we should understand from our own history and our current politics that the simple but profound declaration of the self-evident truth of human equality is apparently as hard to understand as it is to live with.
Bin Laden’s violent response in the name of God was also a puzzle to many. Again, it should not be if we reflect on the ancient Hebrews’ conquest of the promised land or the degree to which violence marked the spread of Christianity both early and late in its career. The monotheistic God of Abraham, whom Muslims share with Christians and Jews, is perhaps the only other force in human history to rival the American Revolution. Indeed, at the heart of the American Revolution was the effort to find some way to live with this transforming monotheistic God, to allow the Supreme Being to work wonders in the lives of individuals without exploding earthly politics. This is what we are referring to when we speak of the separation of church and state. It was above all this aspect of the American Revolution that bin Laden hated.
In his statement announcing bin Laden’s death, President Obama said that bin Laden had been planning more attacks on Americans. Whether or not this was true, bin Laden’s death was an act of justice. It was retribution, giving to him what he deserved, and giving to someone what they deserve is justice.
Another justification for killing bin Laden was that it might deter others. Perhaps it did, but killing him was not a question of what others might think, but above all of what Americans would think. At a most basic level, American citizenship is a pledge of citizens to defend one another, as a necessary condition for the possibility of governing ourselves. Without mutual self-defense, we could not enjoy the blessings of liberty. Those who killed bin Laden were armed above all with the authority of the American people. This is what distinguished their violence from the brutality authored by their target.
Killing bin Laden was not an unthinking reflex. It took nearly ten years of steady methodical organization and intelligence gathering. It was carefully thought out and planned. That made it all the more telling an assertion of Americans’ self-respect. Reflecting on bin Laden’s death and the relentless determination and courage it required to bring it about should encourage us in the face of whatever dangers we may still confront.