Quote of the day--obituary of the day edition

>> Monday, May 02, 2011

I've never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure.

-Mark Twain [or not--see update below]

I can't imagine the context is too difficult to figure out.

Though I'm not quite the mensch Twain may have been; I'm afraid I probably have, in fact, wished people dead. Not something I'm proud of, mind you, but it is what it is. If it's any consideration, there were times when I was younger when one of those men happened to be myself, so it's not like I was particularly discriminatory or self-serving with it (or maybe I was; guess it depends on how you look at it).

But as to the occasion: I'm not too inclined to do a big old happy dance, though I honestly can't say I'm the least bit sorry the son of a bitch is dead. Getting rid of the rat bastard really isn't a permanent solution to anything, as I'm sure there are people there to step in and take his place, and we're still in the midst of the wars we got into after September 11th, 2001, and I'd frankly have to say that bin Laden was, really, more of a lingering political problem than anything (that isn't to say he was harmless or any such thing, but with other people waiting in the wings for his inevitable eventual death, the issue of bin Laden specifically was, as I say, a political embarrassment as much as/more than a practical problem). However, I also don't want to be too negative; Glenn Greenwald, for instance, is just being a dick, and it's hard not to suspect he's turned into a mere troll, I'm afraid. Osama bin Laden being dead can't really be called a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination.

I'd have to admit my biggest reaction is actually modest surprise, as I was saying just this weekend that I half suspected the bastard was dead and wished I had the access or expertise to listen to the taped messages he was periodically issuing in order to judge whether they were as authentic as the CIA had said or whether they were ghostly messages from beyond the grave, posthumously assembled by fanatic loyalists on laptops with A/V editing software. Apparently not. Seems a bit ironic that one finds out the man was still alive by reading about his death, but there you are.

Also: I find it completely unsurprising and yet nonetheless disappointing that the man wasn't living in a cave in Afghanistan, but was, in fact, living in a wealthy, upper-crust town in an "allied" country. While I'm not generally a fan of an administration committing a diplomatic faux pas like an unannounced incursion into a neutral or allied country (I'm still pissed at Nixon for Cambodia, after all), I can't help but note that if we'd gone through proper channels, bin Laden would still be on dialysis. I have to wonder how many of our good friends and allies in Pakistan were disappointed by the news of their ward's death, frankly.

So, anyway, there it is. I don't see any particular reason to get up and dance, but I'd be lying if I said I was in any way upset by the news. It may or may not be a great day to be an American, but it certainly isn't a bad one. Not bad at all.

(H/t to my sister's friend Will for the Twain quote.)

UPDATE, MAY 3rd, 2011: Interestingly enough, it would appear the "Mark Twain" quote that started this piece isn't actually a Twain line at all, but rather a misattributed, truncated Clarence Darrow line. Which is actually sort of a cool mistake to me, personally, because Darrow's a bit of a hero to me, too, much as I revere Twain.

I actually attempted to fact-check the Twain quote before I ran with it, and several sites online sourced it back to Twain, so I took their word for it; I don't offer this as an attempt to cover my ass, but to point out the mistake is apparently fairly widespread.

The Kottke article at the link is worth a look. It traces the Darrow/Twain quote, as well as a line that's been attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King quite a bit recently.


filelalaine Monday, May 2, 2011 at 5:05:00 PM EDT  

killing is never okay. not okay when al qaida does it to us, not okay when we do it to them.

just. never. okay.

Eric Monday, May 2, 2011 at 5:32:00 PM EDT  

Filelalaine, I agree in principle but find that practice is a far murkier thing. For instance, whether or not an action is necessary may be a separate issue from specific moral concerns.

I'm not sure I'm in a position to defend killing anyone, even bin Laden; that said, I cannot honestly condemn it, either. I am, as regular readers, family members and friends know, a staunch opponent of the death penalty; it may well be that I am a hypocrite for not condemning bin Laden's death, or that I am at least arbitrary in my distinctions. If one wishes to accuse me of being inconsistent here, well, frankly, I'll cop to it. But then that may take us back to the Twain quote: whether or not I wished for bin Laden's death, I'm not upset by it, nor by the circumstances of it.

You know, this raises an interesting personal question for me: I expected bin Laden's death and assumed that American (or allied) forces would summarily kill him given the chance. I never really even considered much possibility he would stand trial. And the prospect of that death didn't faze me or concern me--it was merely a likely fact of life. So is that the equivalent of wishing him dead? Because I don't know if I can say I desired bin Laden's death, however much I was unopposed to it.

A similar tangent: the defendants at Nuremberg had patently unfair show trials that violated a basic and ancient principle of Western European law (that no one should be tried for ex post facto offenses), and yet I have no qualms about the whole lot of them being hanged. Not even Julius Streicher, who frankly did little more than publish offensive drawings and puff pieces about how adorable the Nazis were (Streicher was merely a propagandist who had no role of any kind in policy or planning). I oppose the death penalty for terrorists and serial killers, but I apparently accept it equanimously for cartoonists, in other words. Somehow I don't feel like this makes me a bad person, but it can't but cross my mind that I could be wrong about that.

In short, I don't disagree, Filelalaine, but I'm afraid I don't really agree, either. And I don't know if that's something I can explain. And I don't think you're wrong, but I also don't think you're right, either. I wouldn't mind if that was something you or anyone else could cast some light on, though I fear the only answer may be that my principles are a hedge maze.

filelalaine Monday, May 2, 2011 at 6:22:00 PM EDT  

I appreciate your ambivalence. My blog may not be a good indicator, but I too have grappled with my share of moral and/or ethical dilemmas. As a descendent of a genocide survivor, I have had to ask myself the tough questions; my unequivocal stand on killing stems from much thought and soul-searching, it is anything but arbitrary.

My question re crime and punishment to you is: if the punishment of the person who committed the crime is delivered in kind (i.e. an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life), what stops it from being itself a crime? Who or what absolves us of this crime even if we're only perpetuating it reciprocally? Does it even matter why and how we do it, much in the same way that it shouldn’t matter why and how Al-Qaida operatives martyr themselves to kill as many of us as they can. It is one thing to defend oneself in the act of being attacked, an altogether COMPLETELY different situation when killing is done in retaliation.

I’m afraid principles cannot afford to be ambiguous or selective. If civilized society is based upon vehemently defending the right to life of ANYONE, then no logic should be allowed to undermine that fundamental right. Otherwise it’s a slippery slope that slides us right down to accepting pre-emptive strikes as a necessary evil (he MAY have wanted to blow us up, yes yes he said he COULD... so we killed him). Bad guys do bad things. By all means they should be punished. But killing is NEVER okay.

Incidentally, and unrelated to the moral question at hand, it would’ve been far better to have an impotent bin Laden than a martyred one. God help us all from the backlash of his death.

Leanright,  Monday, May 2, 2011 at 6:54:00 PM EDT  

I believe it would have been better for him to be in US custody, than to have been killed, but I'll take it either way. He was an evil man, and will no longer be the mastermind of Al Queda. He murdered 3000 Americans, and countless other people around the world. The sun shines a little brighter today, and his death is as welcome and any good news we've seen in a while.

I commend President Obama for keeping up the pursuit, and for the vigilance of our service people.

Eric Monday, May 2, 2011 at 7:09:00 PM EDT  


Thank you for the thoughtful response. There is nothing in your comment that I can take issue with as a matter of reason or conscience. Everything you say is valid.


But emotions have their own legitimacy as reasons. They can be dangerous as reasons--this is one reason for leaving some questions to social entities, e.g. juries, instead of to interested individuals. But that doesn't invalidate emotional reasons altogether. Sometimes, indeed, the fact that something resonates with basic instincts of compassion or fairness or decency is a more valuable guide than logic.


And it is satisfying, I'm afraid, that a man like bin Laden is dead, much as it's satisfying that someone like Julius Streicher died badly. It isn't a pleasant thing for somebody who likes to think he's civilized to admit, but there it is. It may be a terrible thing to say, "Good riddance to bad rubbish" about a human being, but that doesn't keep the sentiment from crossing the mind.

There's this, too, that I thought as I drove away from the office: that notwithstanding the fact I assumed bin Laden wouldn't be tried, that given a choice between every possible outcome, I wouldn't have opposed trial and imprisonment and would even have favored it. But the catch there is that given a choice between bin Laden being around to cause suffering and his sudden death, death is a preferable outcome, too. That isn't said lightly. But (as much as I dislike the "rabid dog" metaphor) sometimes a dangerous creature must die for the safety of the group. That isn't something to gloat over or show glee over--not because it's unseemly, but because a nasty task is not made clean by its necessity.

As for the incidental consideration: out of any possible reason not to kill bin Laden, martyrdom is a nonstarter and entirely nonpersuasive. The types who follow bin Laden look for reasons whether they're give reasons or not. If it weren't bin Laden's martyrdom, it would have been somebody else's, or an unpleasant political fact about some location, or an obscure historical slight from a hundred or five hundred years back. That isn't to say that none of radical Islam's grievances have merit or that the West has been above reproach. Quite the contrary. But someone who is willing to strap on a bomb and blow up children can be given almost any excuse for it, they've divorced themselves from reason or ethics for the sake of whatever. Of course there will be a backlash from bin Laden's death: just like the backlash from the division of Palestine or the one from the removal of the Moors from the Spanish peninsula, or the backlash against out mere existence.

filelalaine Monday, May 2, 2011 at 7:33:00 PM EDT  

To me, the picture of Saddam being dragged out of his hole, disheveled, unkempt, and in handcuffs, was far more powerful than the grainy video of his hanging. If our aim was to show the might of our army, we may have been better served with a little more temperance. At any rate, I can argue with logic, not with emotions. So will agree to disagree with you on this one and leave it at that.

Looking forward to future intercourse with you, I bid you good evening.

Leanright,  Monday, May 2, 2011 at 11:49:00 PM EDT  

Um, okay. THAT Megan.


Enjoy yourselves kids!

Wear a hat.

Eric Tuesday, May 3, 2011 at 9:22:00 AM EDT  

Which THAT Megan? What kind of hat? Huh?

Nathan Tuesday, May 3, 2011 at 9:35:00 AM EDT  

The question is further complicated by whether or not you classify what's been going on for the last 10 years (more, really if you want to begin with bin Laden's earlier attacks), as a "war" or as "police work". Frankly, the U.S. seems to want to have it both ways, depending on which is more convenient or expedient at the time. (We call it a "war on terrorism", but but don't consider their "soldier" recognized combatants under the Geneva Convention. (This whole part isn't my point -- just a way of getting there.)

Anyway, if we're conducting "police work", there's every argument to be made that we have a responsibility to attempt to capture their leadership and put them on trial. If we're conducting a "war", their leadership is fair game, n'est pas?

On a battlefield, it's always been a common tactic to attempt to identify officers on the field and to target them. We purposely targeted Admiral Yamamoto's plane (successfully) in WWII. Did we owe him the opportunity to surrender and land at an American base? How do you define a "battlefield" in a war where the enemy makes no distinctions? Or, if bin Laden is recognized as the other side's "general", directing the war from somewhere behind the front lines, aren't we still free to target "command and control" facilities (with him in them), with a cruise missile? How is that targeted killing ultimately really any different from achieving it with "boots on the ground"?

To be honest, I'm just playing around with what I consider an interesting thought experiment here...not actually debating the rightness or wrongness of targeting (or trying to capture) bin Laden. I've got a lot less ambivalence about this than Eric seems to. I've said elsewhere that I'll have no problem whatsoever if it eventually comes out that the orders didn't include a "capture" option.

I know it's the worst type of hair-splitting, but I accept bin Laden's video tapes as his proud confession. I can live with the idea that we didn't need any further ceremony or ritual (i.e. a trial) to establish his guilt and carry out an execution.

P.S. I'm a lot less pure than Eric when it comes to my opposition to the death penalty. I don't really object to it from moral grounds as much as I object to the criteria for pursuing it in the U.S. (and the demonstrated fact that Prosecutors get the wrong guy so often).

Nathan Tuesday, May 3, 2011 at 9:47:00 AM EDT  

P.S. On the subject of "police work" vs. "war", I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment:

We should consider the steps we take to undermine and eliminate terrorist organizations police work rather than “a war.” Police work is steady, daily, thoughtful, and cost-effective. A war, being a response to an existential threat, is both sentimental and unlimited in the resources it uses. Even with Bin Laden dead, it’s still possible to give him what he wants… if we’re still willing to give him a war.


Eric Tuesday, May 3, 2011 at 12:15:00 PM EDT  

Nathan, those are excellent points, and Michael Lind has a typically excellent piece up at Salon concerning the "war or law enforcement" issue.

My own tendency is to think of anti-terrorism strategies in law enforcement terms--possibly because of my own background as a criminal defense attorney by trade, though I think that treating terrorism as an international law enforcement problem generally makes more sense. The people we're talking about are criminals, on however a grandiose scale, and the best strategies for catching them are, fundamentally, law enforcement strategies (whether they're performed by civilian agencies or the military). (Also, you're completely right to point out that this isn't a legal buffet for the United States: if this really is a war, and not a criminal investigation, then terrorists are soldiers, and if this is a criminal investigation, then they're suspects--you can't have it both ways whenever it's convenient.)

Except, having said all that, situations such as bin Laden's Pakistan compound do, as you suggest, muddle things up, don't they? That, at least, looks more like a battlefield than a crime scene, and you're right that the United States (and every other state) has targeted military leaders in wartime (or, sadly, technically, occasionally in peacetime, but that's a whole 'nother kettle of worms).

Tough questions.

Leanright,  Tuesday, May 3, 2011 at 1:36:00 PM EDT  

I meant "lovely Megan" from the previous photos. You look like you'd make a wonderful pair.

It's summer, just a hat to keep the scorching rays of sun off your smiling faces.

Cheers and love life!

Eric Tuesday, May 3, 2011 at 2:19:00 PM EDT  

Uhm, Dave... Megan isn't the Significant Other. But thank you for the compliment and I'm sure the SO would appreciate being called lovely (which she is).

(Not trying to rub more salt into any embarrassing wound, but you might have sussed that out from Megan's Blogspot user page, which you can get to by clicking her link. (a) She's on the other side of the country from me and (b) I'd hope that if the SO followed blogs, mine would be one of them. For instance.)

Leanright,  Tuesday, May 3, 2011 at 5:49:00 PM EDT  

The "future intercourse" comment threw me off. My apologies.

It did take me by surprise. A bold comment, and quite sexy:)

Eric Tuesday, May 3, 2011 at 5:51:00 PM EDT  

Apparently you have a dirty mind, Dave.

filelalaine Tuesday, May 3, 2011 at 8:51:00 PM EDT  

Hey, speak for yerself, Eric, he called me bold and sexy. I'm definitely showing this to the husband the next time he takes me for granted.
Gentlemen, always a pleasure :)

P.S. what's a four-letter word for intercourse that ends in k?

Nathan Tuesday, May 3, 2011 at 11:10:00 PM EDT  

Sure didn't see things heading off into this direction.

::shambles off to a less confusing corner of the internet::

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