Last week I threw out my files on Osama Bin Laden’s death — which I am more prone to call a murder or an assassination — because new and perhaps bigger questions keep leaping up at us and I have to make room in both my head and in my files and desk space for new problems.
But Nicholas Schmidle’s “Getting Bin Laden,” in the New Yorker, a play-by-play reconstruction of the killing from take-off, to landing and shooting, and return, based not on interviews with the Navy SEALS themselves but with other government officials who spoke to them and then to the author, is constructed, in a non-analytical way, so as to give the impression that now we know exactly what happened, without dealing with the moral ambiguities at stake.
Actually there is little in the article — except for the name of the participating dog, Cairo, whom President Obama made a point of meeting upon their return, and Vice President Joe Biden’s cryptic remark to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that “We should all go to Mass tonight” — that the careful reader did not already know.
Nevertheless the moment of kill itself is so cold-blooded that it is hard to see how a co-called “pro-life” movement, or church that opposes capital punishment, or a legal profession that says we are a government of laws can stomach it.
Osama, as he sees the SEAL coming up, ducks into his room at the top of the stairs. The SEAL breaks into the room and two wives are in front of Osama. He shoots one in the leg, lest she be wearing an explosive jacket. She’s not. A second SEAL enters, his gun pointed at the unarmed Osama’s chest. “There was never any question of detaining or capturing him,” the informant tells the author. They wanted a corpse. Schmidle, in one sentence, portrays this SEAL as the avenging angel, sent nine years after 9/11 to settle the score. A bullet to the chest, another to the head above the left eye. On his radio to the White House, the executioner reports, “For God and country . . . enemy killed in action.” Did he imagine that this is what God wanted?
In Sunday’s New York Times Maureen O’Dowd notices that the New Yorker article appears in the week after President Obama, his weakness revealed as a battler with Congress, needs an image boost. The boost is supplied by an article fed to a pliant reporter that portrays him as a tough decision maker and cool commander. She reports that the same film team who made “The Hurt Locker” — the grim Oscar-winning film about a soldier who disarms bombs in Iraq and is about to explode himself as a victim of the war — is making a film about the Osama killing which, the administration hopes, will “reflect the president’s cool, gutsy decision making against shaky odds,” to be released in October 2012.
I cannot imagine how the theme of “The Hurt Locker” can be reconciled with this event. But I’ll see it.
With all this in mid, we read the story of the “Deadliest Day Of Afghan War for U.S. Forces” where what was most likely a Taliban rocket shot down a helicopter full of 30 Americans, 22 of whom were Navy SEALS, colleagues of those who killed Osama, plus 8 Afghans, leaving 38 dead. It is hard to not see this as a quid-pro-quo: SEALS kill Osama to avenge 9/11, Taliban kill 22 SEALS as pay-back, part of the circle of revenge that, if allowed to continue in this mode, will poison or kill us all.
Meanwhile it is risky to apply the symbolism of events to a president’s ups and downs. In today’s Washington Post the plunge of this helicopter was applied to the president himself.