Entry from May 5, 2011

The great Daniel Finkelstein of the London Times reports that an anagram of “Osama bin Laden” is “Lob da man in sea.” That’s the kind of insight which may produce a degree of enjoyment in those of us who have long wished ill to so dedicated an enemy of this country but who find the urge to gloat or celebrate somewhat unseemly. Those who would celebrate in a more exuberant fashion, even to the point of “spiking the ball,” as our President put it in respect of publishing the photos of the dead man, may feel an understandable joy at his demise, but translating that joy into public action has implications for the national honor. I may, of course, be wrong, but I think that honor is better served, as honor so often is, by understatement than overstatement in the expression of our joy.

There was no loss of honor for us in being attacked by Osama’s minions on 9/11 so long as we were exacting a price by retaliating against them and others whose sponsorship of terrorism implicated them as his allies or accomplices. But I think this is partly because everybody, including Osama himself, expected that this day would eventually come, however long it took us to track him down and kill him. That’s also why I think a lot of the more boisterous kinds of celebrations are inadvisable. What did these people expect? Of course we were always going to get him. It was just a matter of time. Neither we nor our enemies should be acting surprised about it, lest we give the impression that we were ever in doubt about our ability to reclaim our honor — though some of us doubtless were.

As for showing the pictures, I think President Obama is right not to do so but not, as subsequent explanations have suggested, because he is afraid of stirring up further animosity against us in the Islamic world. A fig for their hatred! He was closer to the mark with the “spike the ball” analogy. Displays of gory corpses, or photos thereof, have something of the Roman triumph about them which doesn’t go well with traditional Western European and American notions of honor. I always like what Captain Jack Philip of the battleship Texas said to his crew at the Battle of Santiago in the Spanish-American war when, on July 3, 1898, they loudly celebrated the sinking of the Spanish cruiser Vizcaya: “Don’t cheer, boys,” said Captain Philip; “the poor devils are dying!” Their dying was no less to be respected because the poor devils only moments before would have done their best to kill him.

In the same spirit, I would mention the obituary by Max Arthur of Admiral Sir Henry Leach, one of the heroes of Margaret Thatcher’s Falklands campaign in 1982, which was published more or less simultaneously with the news of the death of Osama bin Laden in the Independent of London Sir Henry had also been a lieutenant on the battleship Duke of York in World War II and took part in the sinking off Norway in December, 1943, of the German battle cruiser Scharnhorst — from which only 38 of its crew of 1,968 were rescued. “Many years later Leach spoke to me of his feelings at the moment of triumph,” writes Mr Arthur. “It was, he said, ‘almost a blankness of shock at what we had done. Some relief. Little exultation — the closing scenes were too grim for that and that remoteness of action at sea precludes hate between sailors.’” Like Admiral Leach, I think we do ourselves and our honor a favor by refusing to hate even Osama bin Laden — though of course we should all be very glad to have killed him.

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