Osama Bin Laden: May He Rest in Peace

05/03/2011 10:19 am ET | Updated Jul 03, 2011

Soon, nearly everyone will have weighed in on Osama bin Laden's death, what it means for the War on Terror, whether we are safer as a result, or should steel ourselves for retaliation. We will revisit the folly of our invasion of Iraq, as well as the purpose of our protracted mission in Afghanistan.

Though I don't know enough to declaim authoritatively on these subjects, I do know that I don't relish the prospect of my daughter growing up in a society where people celebrate a man's death in the streets just as they do a victory of their favorite baseball team -- and as bin Laden's supporters did when the twin towers fell.

Justice has been done, according to President Obama, a former professor of law and an unusually reflective man, from whom one might have expected a more thoughtful conception of justice. But he is in full swing as commander-in-chief of the largest military-industrial complex the world has ever known, and about to run for re-election. His words were over-determined, written into the script before he took the stage.

This morning, upon hearing that U.S. forces had killed bin Laden, my twelve-year-old daughter said, "Oh, so now they will want to come and kill more of us."

This sobering thought brought to mind the evening of 9/11, when, on our way home from dinner, passing our local fire station, the truck was pulling in under crepuscular light, covered in pale gray ash, the men silent, weary, spent. People in the street, only dimly aware of one another a moment before, all suddenly stopped, coalesced, and began to applaud; someone asked "Did everyone make it back?" Clapping ceased, then, the sad reply, "We lost two."

How much more we have lost since then, how many lives, dollars, opportunities.

Bin Laden's death presents a new opportunity. In our response we can revel in the satisfaction of revenge -- or we can decide to end the cycle of killing and demand a different approach from our government, which is, after all, supposed to be of, by, and for the people.

Just one person, like everyone I contain multitudes. I am a Jew, well acquainted with the anguish of the Holocaust, nevertheless disturbed when Israel violates the rights of Palestinians. I am half-Japanese, endowed with familial memories of the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the likes of which I hope we will never see again. I am an American (and a New Yorker), appalled as anyone by the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But above all, I am a human being, a citizen of a world imperiled on many fronts, not least by the violence our species inflicts upon it and ourselves.

Lest we forget, bin Laden too was a human being, born helpless like the rest of us, coddled by his mother, traumatized by the sudden death of his father when he was a boy of ten. Many have described him as considerate, gentle, and generous. Though wealthy, he lived modestly, sleeping with his men on the floor. Americans and bin Laden fought on the same side against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Indeed, the complex at Tora Bora where al Qaeda members later hid had been created with C.I.A. help as a base for fighting the Soviets. Even bin Laden, then training volunteers for the mujahedeen, acknowledged, "The weapons were supplied by the Americans, the money by the Saudis."

How many of us have tried to understand the evolution of his grievances against the United States -- how a soft-spoken, mild-mannered boy became a mastermind of terror?

So much easier to demonize, oversimplify, and play into bin Laden's hands by sowing our own brand of terror, otherwise known as American exceptionalism, which permits torture and pre-emptive war when it serves our purposes, then hopes to win the future without facing the past, unwilling to hold anyone accountable for the disgraceful departures from our purportedly democratic values.

Easier in the short run -- and a guarantee of more terror in the long run.

Imagine if we had responded differently: To take one consequential example, for a fraction of the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan we could have built enough schools to educate all the children there, and rebuilt our own crumbling schools. Instead of resentment of our military presence and uncounted corpses, we might actually receive flowers of gratitude from Iraqis and Afghanis alike. Instead of celebration over the death of our enemy, we could be sharing sympathetic joy in our harmonious co-existence.

While we can't undo the last decade, the future is still ours to be won -- not as Americans, but as humans -- if only we have the collective will.

In addition to a victory for America and for those who lost loved ones on 9/11, George W. Bush called bin Laden's death "a victory for people who seek peace around the world". Let us make it so.