The War on Terror and Ghosts of Osama Bin Laden

06/01/2011 03:29 pm ET | Updated Aug 01, 2011

Now that the dust has settled down surrounding a rather peculiar account of bin Laden's assassination at the hands of U.S. Navy SEALs in Pakistan, and the various retelling have been iterated ad infinitum by the Obama administration (although conspiracy theorists are still out there and I don't really blame them as we don't have a body of evidence, as it were, to support the official story), Americans are breathing a collective sigh of relief.

Only the passing of time will tell the impact of bin Laden's death and whether this relief is realistically grounded (and I hope it is), but right now is an opportune moment to examine the nature of his death and our subsequent reaction. Have we handled this milestone better or worse than our forebearers who faced similar moral struggles? Is there a shadow on our national psyche cast by bin Laden and the War on Terror?

Some have argued that bin Laden was pushing up daisies long before May 2011, as there were accounts of his death floating about: former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, in an interview with David Frost, talked rather nonchalantly of his murder by a character named Omar Sheikh -- and was assassinated not long after that interview. That segment of the interview was edited out when it was broadcast on BBC, but the unedited version still exists.

But if one were to go by the official story, it seems clear he could have been taken alive. Some have suggested that this was never a realistic intention: the last thing our government wanted was for him to talk. I must say I am a bit disappointed that he wasn't brought to justice: I would have loved to be the fly on the wall of that trial. But it's clear that this great country of ours has returned to its Wild West-style vigilante justice roots: extra-judicial killings have become the blood sport du jour for one of the oldest civilized democracies. Obama's administration is taking a page out of the last administration's play book by conveniently defining the law after the deed.

But I am even more outraged by loss of civil rights that belong to all of us -- rights that were constitutionally written in stone, we were told -- until they became pliable and then curtailed under the inaptly named Patriot Act, which was sold to the public out of fear of one evildoer. Despite a U.S. passport and record of incident-free domestic and international travel, I was detained twice at the airport due solely to my name and appearance. All the encumbrances and the scrutiny that the law-abiding citizens of this country have had to endure thus far, it would have been more cathartic for us to put this person through an excruciating Kafkaesque trial and mete out justice than to put him out of his misery so swiftly.

Despite our lofty rhetoric about U.S. greatness and morality, in practice there is a jagged incongruity. I was not alone in finding the bin Laden death celebrations rather off-putting: the death of anybody, even a staunch enemy, is a somber and macabre subject to me and not an occasion of merrymaking. In an earlier era, we left the celebrating for happy occasions and brought focus, gravity, and solemnity to the chore of bringing to justice our most heinous and still much maligned enemy -- an enemy whose name has become synonymous with all things evil: the Nazis.

Roosevelt was rather vindictive about the Nazi war criminals, and was quite willing to go along with Stalin's idea of justice: Stalin basically wanted to line all of them up and execute them military style. Churchill was not of this mind, and opposed the idea. After Roosevelt's death when Truman was sworn in as a president he insisted on a judicial process and a military tribunal at Nuremberg to deal with the war criminals. He appointed Henry H. Jackson to represent the U.S. as chief prosecutor along with other allies.

When Jackson commenced the trials he made a speech, and this is what he said in his opening:
"We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants today is a record on which history will judge us tomorrow. To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well. We must summon such detachment and intellectual integrity that this trial will commend itself to posterity as fulfilling humanity's aspirations to do justice."

In just over sixty years since that event, how have we morally fallen so far from that zenith which produced people like Jackson?