More than any other person, bin Laden has defined the last decade and changed the way people everywhere go about their daily lives. Bin Laden showed his fanatical followers that a relatively small number of disciplined and committed individuals can wage war on a great power. Al Qaeda’s effect on our daily lives—from the elaborate security we must endure at our airports to the barriers and blocked streets in front of public buildings to that dim, distant anxiety we feel when we travel abroad—is undeniable.
Still, I was sobered by the sight and sounds of college students celebrating outside the White House last Sunday night. Although I was certainly pleased to hear the news of the successful operation, as were most Americans, the pep-rally atmosphere seemed somehow inappropriate. It was clear to me that the scene on Pennsylvania Avenue showed the world only that the White House was just a few blocks from a major university, not that Americans were celebrating madly everywhere. The lens may have captured what looked like the celebrations after VJ Day, but the lens only framed one block.
This was not VJ Day. It was the death of one criminal, one terrorist who paid for his crimes. As one citizen put it when interviewed on NPR, it was a day “not of triumph, but of redress for grave injuries caused to the nation.”
It is now done. For sure, bin Laden remains an icon. He has been a symbol and an inspiration to Islamic extremists and has given a pretext for violence to sociopaths or to weak individuals who can only gain a sense of self-worth by giving their lives to a cause that they believe is far greater than themselves. He doesn’t cease to be an inspiration with his death; in fact, he may now be more of an inspiration than ever.
But does that change with the release of a picture? No. the release of the photo demeans us as a great nation. Regardless of what reasons we give for its release, it has the look of a gruesome trophy. While we have become extremely aware of cultural sensitivities in the Muslim world, releasing such a photo violates our own cultural sensitivities about parading the dead. A great nation doesn’t need to do that. We hunted him patiently. We found him. We killed him in an operation no other nation could carry out. We have nothing more to prove.
And what of those who refuse to believe Osama bin Laden is really dead? I doubt that most of them will be convinced by a photo. They want to believe in the myth of bin Laden, the man who held the United States in his power. We know by experience that no amount of evidence will convince people of something they do not wish to believe. There are people who believe the moon landings were faked in a studio, people who believe the Mossad warned Jews about the 9/11 and people who believe the CIA introduced AIDS. To them, and to the people who will continue to believe Osama bin Laden is alive, the very implausibility of their beliefs is somehow evidence of their own superiority.
I wouldn’t say that the administration handled the communications over the bin Laden operation well.
John Brennan’s gloating, unqualified statements to reporters were an embarrassment when the facts came out, and Leon Panetta’s open speculation about release of the photos—a discussion that should have been kept within the government—was unwise. The photos should now be sealed away.
But President Obama made the right decision for a great nation: Bin Laden is dead. Everyone knows it except those who will refuse to believe. We can’t forget about him, but we can refuse to elevate him any further, and we can refuse to stoop to the level of medieval victors who paraded the heads of their enemies on pikes—regardless of the reason.
Greg Lagana is a partner at Qorvis Communications, Washington, D.C. He is a former Foreign Service Office and served with the White House from 2001 to 2005.