Obama's Finest Hour

Thane Rosenbaum in The Wall Street Journal, May 03, 2011

Media Source

By BRET STEPHENS

There was only one discordant note in Barack Obama's otherwise masterly speech Sunday night announcing the killing of Osama bin Laden. It came when the president invoked the word "justice" to describe what had just been done to the architect of 9/11.

It wasn't quite the word he was looking for. But actions speak louder than words.
Justice, as we in the West have come to know it, requires due process. It takes place in a courtroom under the supervision of a judge. Prosecutors must prove their case; defendants are entitled to a competent defense; rules of evidence and procedure must scrupulously be followed. A jury must render its verdict. Punishment can be neither cruel nor unusual.

This is the sort of justice the hapless Attorney General Eric Holder had in mind when he sought to have bin Laden's operational lieutenant, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, tried in a civilian Manhattan courthouse. The people of New York City revolted. KSM will now get better than he deserves in a military tribunal.
As for bin Laden, what was meted out to him was vengeance. Vengeance pure and simple, sweet and sound. Vengeance cathartic, uplifting, necessary and right.
Got a problem with that?

I don't. Nor did the people who poured into the streets Sunday night to cheer outside the White House, or the crowd I saw Monday morning as I walked the perimeter of Ground Zero.

"Why does everyone root for the avenger in feature films?" asks my friend Thane Rosenbaum, who teaches law at Fordham and is writing a book about revenge. "Is it because people are immoral in the dark, or is it because we all realize that the avenger's quest and duty is righteous and true?"

Thane's point isn't that vengeance is better than justice. It's that there can be no true justice without vengeance. Oddly enough, this is something Barack Obama, Chicago liberal, seems to better grasp than George W. Bush, Texas cowboy.
The former president was fond of dilating on the point, as he put it just after 9/11, that "ours is a nation that does not seek revenge, but we do seek justice." What on Earth did that mean? Of course we sought revenge. "Ridding the world of evil," Mr. Bush's other oft-stated ambition, was nonsense if we didn't make a credible go of ridding the world of the very specific evil named Osama bin Laden.

For all of Mr. Bush's successes—and yes, there were a few, including the vengeance served that other specific evil known as Saddam Hussein and those Gitmo interrogations that yielded bin Laden's location—you can trace the decline of his presidency from the moment he said, in March 2002, that "I really don't care [where bin Laden is]. It's not that important."

Wrong. It was of the essence. Americans didn't merely want to be secured against another attack—an achievement experienced only in the absence of fresh outrages and appreciated only in hindsight. Americans wanted vengeance. It's what they had wanted after Pearl Harbor, too: what took the Marines up Mt. Suribachi, the Rangers up Point du Hoc. Revenge is a glue that holds a fractious nation together in the service of a great and arduous cause.

Mr. Obama, for all his talk of justice, understands this. Or, in the education that is the presidency, he has come to understand it. Maybe it's true, as his critics allege, that his steady focus on finding bin Laden was done for the sake of declaring victory in the war on terror so that he could start rolling up America's commitments in Afghanistan. If this is his "Mission Accomplished" moment, he will come to regret it.
But I doubt Mr. Obama is that dumb. Nor is there any reason not to take him at his word when he said Sunday that bin Laden's death "does not mark the end of our effort." Osama is dead; his franchisees carry on. Count on a self-styled bin Laden Martyrs' Brigade to take credit for whatever terrorist atrocity comes next.
But even if it does, it will lack the sinister potency of previous attacks. The air of mystery that sustained al Qaeda all the way through Sunday night has finally been laid bare, and it looks like an ugly house that can be located in seconds on Google Maps.

Here is something that Mr. Obama, more than most Western leaders, deeply understands: Symbolism matters. It matters that the ultimate symbol of Islamist rage did not wear a ring of invisibility. It matters that he was taken out not by a laser-guided bomb, but by American fighting men whose names we may someday know. It matters that the story of 9/11 has been brought full circle, even as the fight against terrorists carries on.

There's been a whiff of sour grapes in some of the right-wing commentary about the president's speech. Too much emphasis on the first-person pronoun, not enough credit to President Bush, and so on. It's unbecoming. If ever there was a doubt about just how American Mr. Obama is, Sunday's raid eliminates it better than any long-form birth certificate. This was his finest hour. It's for the rest of us, avenged at long last, to rejoice.