Saddam’s symbolic power over Iraq ended with the taking of his capital and the toppling of the statues that proclaimed his glory; the threat he posed as a military and insurgent leader came to an end with his capture; and finally his trial and execution ended his life. To revel at Saddam’s hanging would have crossed the line, taking an unseemly glee at the death of an individual human being during what should be a somber act of justice. However, to rejoice at his capture, and consequently the end of the threat he posed to the people of Iraq and the world, was wholly justified. And the same was true of celebrating the iconic toppling of Saddam’s statue in Baghdad. It stood as the symbol of his power. When it fell, so too did Saddam’s legend and all that he and his regime had stood for.
On the other hand, in the operation that brought down bin Laden, the man, the threat, and the symbol all came to swift and simultaneous ends. Bin Laden designed his terror networks and command structures specifically to withstand and elude the conventional military might of the United States, retaining his ability to threaten American security even in hiding. And he built up his legend to withstand conventional assault as well: He was the ascetic holy man, the romantic warrior of the mountains, unable to be found, unable to be stopped, an everlasting inspiration for the ideology he espoused. That legend was his statue — one that could not be destroyed by U.S. forces even as they invaded Afghanistan, ejected the Taliban, foiled terrorist plots, and killed al-Qaeda henchmen. But when American Special Forces finally found the un-findable, killed the un-killable, and showed him to be nothing more than a feeble old man hiding in luxury behind bodyguards and human shields, that legend was destroyed and the symbolic statue that was Osama bin Laden came toppling down.
It was the demise of Osama bin Laden the threat and the symbol that America so joyously celebrated. The death of the man was merely a vehicle to that end. To believe otherwise is to believe that these celebrations would not have occurred had bin Laden been captured alive. And to believe that these celebrations would have been morally acceptable in the case of his capture but not in the case of his death implies that the American people would have a moral obligation to actively mourn the man and confer upon him in death a dignity and honor that we never would have given him in life. Perhaps the saints among us have such infinite generosity of spirit as to bestow such loving-kindness upon a mass murderer of innocents, but it certainly does not make one a sinner to withhold it. To rejoice at the defeat of this purveyor of mass death is not only natural, it is right.
— Daniel Krauthammer is a writer in Los Angeles. He holds a master’s degree in financial economics from Oxford University.