Monday, May 2, 2011

Sayonara, Osama

Generally speaking, I'm not one to celebrate death ... any death. I'm so strongly opposed to the death penalty that friends don't even discuss the subject with me anymore. I've always felt that it's not within the rights of any human being ... for any reason ... to take the life of another, regardless of whether the motivation is evil or noble (at least in the eyes of those doing the killing).

But I have to say with all that, I can join my fellow Americans today in celebrating the demise of Osama bin Laden. Deep down inside, I wish it had never come to this, and that the forces who killed him had, instead, captured him and brought him to the U.S. to stand trial.

But the realist in me knows that was never going to happen. He would never allow himself to be taken alive. He would either be free, forever (well, as free as one can be holed up in the bowels of a house or a cave), to wreak havoc upon the world; or we were going to find him and do the only thing possible: kill him.

So in that sense, I'm glad it's done. Now, maybe, we can begin to truly heal from the September 11, 2001, attacks.

But there are a couple of things I'd like to kick around and -- hopefully -- discuss with my "fans," such as they are.

First, the idea that killing Obama was better because it would spare the families of the 9/11 victims from having to relive the event over and over during a trial. I reject that. That's what we do in the United States. We try murder suspects and then figure out how to handle them once they're convicted. To a surviving loved one, it hardly matters (and it certainly wouldn't matter to me) whether the victim was murdered by some gang-banger in a drive-by or blown out of a New York high-rise. Both are, to me, equally violent, and equally sudden, deaths.

Every day, survivors of murder victims have to drag themselves to court and listen to prosecutors, defense attorneys, witnesses and even defendants re-live their worst nightmares. It might not be pleasant, but it's a necessary part of what makes the U.S. system of justice what it is. Is it perfect? No. Do guilty people often go free? Absolutely. And in the eyes of a loved one who has just seen a killer acquitted, is it fair? Not at all. Just as it's not fair to railroad innocent people into long jail sentences and, possibly, death. They both happen, and, I'm afraid, a lot more often than we'd all like to think.

When people say that they're afraid families of victims wouldn't be able to stand the strain of a trial, I'm afraid what they're really saying is THEY couldn't stand the strain of it. Unlike a drive-by on Mission Hill or in Dorchester, this was an attack on the nation as well as a violent mass murder. And the nation is still tremendously scarred.

It's almost the same as the argument Gerald Ford used when he pardoned Richard Nixon: the NATION couldn't afford to keep reliving all of this.

But I say the nation, though scarred, is stronger than we give it credit for being. I believe we could have withstood it very well. And I believe those families could have withstood it too.

The downside: under pure U.S. jurisprudence, it would have been impossible for Obama to get the type of trial that we in this country alternately praise and condemn. That is to say a fair trial. You'd have to have lived your entire life under a rock not to have heard of Osama bin Laden and what he had unleashed upon the nation and the world.

The other downside, as I said: it was never going to happen. I remember watching a documentary of the Nuremberg Trials, and the diligence (ultimately unsuccessful) with which the U.S. tried to keep Herman Goering alive long enough to execute him.

At the time I watched it, that seemed pretty perverse. Who cared whether Goering was executed or whether he poisoned himself before that could ever happen? The end result was the same. He was dead. He paid.

For the first time in my life, however, I understand the sentiment. I may lean on the liberal side of things, but the last thing I'd have wanted to see was Osama bin Laden become a heroic figure whose mythical status grew because he wouldn't let the U.S. authorities get him. That would have been so ... Adolf Hitler.

If this had to be done, I'm glad the U.S. did it. I've lived through only a handful of true national tragedies ... all of them involving violent death, either the assassination of a political/social figure, or mass murders. By far, 9/11 was the most profound ... the most horrible. It was crippling on so many levels. Some of that was due to the sheer horror of it, but some of it was also due to our own complacency that we were impervious to such widespread and devastating terrorism. It shook us to the core, not only because of the actual devastation, but because of its long-term implications.

I don't want to sound overly crass about this, but if there was justice to be done, this was ours to do. Not his. And not Pakistan's.

And it's personal too. Maybe that's why I spent all night watching this, and maybe that's why I'm still wound up. A former high school football coach of mine was on one of those planes out of Logan. Mr. Jim Trentini was a tough, old U.S. Marine who certainly treated football practice (and gym class as well) as if he were running boot camp. At least that's how we all saw it. He was the one who taught me how to lift weights properly (and he was also the one who expressed ever-lasting exasperation over my total unwillingness to do so).

I wasn't a great football player, and I certainly made no effort to stay in touch with him after I got out of high school. But when I saw his name on the scroll that listed all the victims, it personalized my outrage just the same.

One of the first professional gigs I had as a Northeastern University co-op was helping out with the coverage of the Boston Bruins at a time when they were absolute royalty in the city. One of the most lively, and refreshing players, on that team was Garnett "Ace" Bailey. He was another victim of 9/11.

I could go on and on. My niece's teacher got called out of class on September 11, 2001, because his father was on one of those planes. An overwhelming number of people either knew one, or some, of the victims; or knew someone who knew someone. That's the scope of this tragedy.

A few other things. First, President Obama. I realize he's not universally loved, and that's OK. Neither was his predecessor. We said some pretty mean things about him, too. That's politics.

But to the extent of his roll in pulling this off, you can't deny that he did it. What happened Sunday sounds pretty close to what Jimmy Carter tried to do in 1980 with the U.S. hostages ... and it blew up in his face. George W. Bush chased bin Laden in and out of caves for eight years and couldn't catch him. This is not meant to be a screed against either. Rather, it is testament to the disadvantages we faced in hunting him down.

It is also a testament to the continuity in those levels of government where continuity is desperately needed. Barack Obama could avail himself of much of the machinery the Bush administration put in motion. It doesn't minimize the contributions of either president that a) Obama was on office when all this actually came to pass; or b) that it happened after Bush left office. Both can share the credit for this one, and -- to each other's credit -- neither went out of his way to claim the lion's share of it.

In fact, I thought Obama's speech was magnificent. Supposedly, some of the delay in his actual delivering of it came about because he wanted to brief the Georges and Bill Clinton of its contents and get their input. If that's the case, it was an hour well spent, because it was perfect. And it speaks volumes about the underlying respect -- beyond the politics -- that the presidents have for each other. It is still the most exclusive club in the United States, and if we lose the essence of that bond, it'll be a sad day).

Finally, let's talk a little about the national catharsis this was/is ... and the spontaneous celebrating that occurred after President Obama announced bin Laden's death.

Part of that, I'm sure, was the actual event itself. We got the bad guy. But I think part of it also has to do with the fact that finally -- and after what seemed to be an eternity -- we got good news that we, as a nation, could collectively celebrates.

We are so fractured, politically, in this country. We divide states not by geography anymore, but by colors. Red states. Blue states. Good news for one is horrible news for the other, and vice versa. And we're certainly guilty of putting the agenda du jour above the national interested sometimes too.

But there's very little to debate here. There's no way this is bad news for anyone -- at least if you get past the fact that this was a "kill" mission and not a "capture" mission (and in this case, I can).

I think a lot of the celebrating you saw was due to the fact that with the incessant drumbeat of bad news, being it political, social, natural, whatever ... and our seeming inability to handle it without equally incessant bickering ... this was one time when everybody could rejoice in the fact that it happened, and that the country pulled it off.

This was a victory -- albeit not a total victory -- over an organization that caused us great pain, and great harm. It's not over. Think of it this way: Boston celebrated well into the night after Carlton Fisk hit the homer that won Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. But the Cincinnati Reds won Game 7 and the series itself.

Perhaps this is Game 6. It's a victory that's so emotional that it just unleashed this tremendous national release. But we still have Game 7. And if we're not careful, and diligent, the wrong team could still win that one, too.

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