Today's post is not book-related (or it is, sort of, in a very tangential way). If you haven't seen the news yet—and I can't imagine you haven't—Osama bin Laden is dead.
I'm not comfortable celebrating anyone's death, though I won't pretend to be upset by the news. I'm glad he's no longer a threat, regardless of the fact that it took us nearly a decade to catch him and he was operationally hindered by his constant flight from U.S. forces over the past several years.
Would I rather have seen him tried for his crimes? Of course. I don't think he would have permitted himself to be captured, however, and if this is the way it had to end, that's fine with me. Again: I'm glad he's gone.
I became a New Yorker only recently; I wasn't in the city (and in fact had never visited it) when the World Trade Center towers were destroyed. I watched on the news and had no firm grasp of what was going on. Maybe if I had been there ten years ago, I would have joined the crowds celebrating bin Laden's death last night, regardless of the fact that I didn't support the war in Iraq and am deeply conflicted about the war in Afghanistan. I certainly don't think this spells the end of the "War on Terror," as Peter Bergen unctuously insisted on cnn last night.
There are going to be books about this: biographies of bin Laden, coffee table books detailing the 9/11 attacks, compendiums on Al Qaeda, maybe even first-person accounts by members of the military directly responsible for bin Laden's death. I can promise you that this minute, any publisher with bin Laden-related titles in his backlist is going back to print; anyone under contract to write a non-fiction book about the man is probably being rushed to finish it.
The story goes back years. People will want to buy and read it. Time is of the essence with news-related titles like these, though I imagine the tenth anniversary of the attacks next September will widen the window of opportunity.
Osama bin Laden was buried at sea to prevent his tomb from becoming a shrine for radicals and radicalism—there can be no locus around which his followers might congregate. At the same time, however, it is important to write and to read books about these events to preserve them in our cultural memory. As the philosopher George Santayana wrote over one hundred years ago, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." We've witnessed tremendous violence these past ten years. If we can't learn from these events, we've got no hope of transcending them.
I hope that bin Laden's death signals a turning point in the war in Afghanistan rather than an event to galvanize his supporters. I hope that someone even worse than him doesn't emerge as a replacement. I hope that the Al Qaeda terrorist network suffers a loss of morale and organization with his death (again, operationally speaking, I don't think there will make much of an impact). And I hope that among all the polarizing, attention-grabbing, and politically motivated books on his life and death that arise over the next year or so, that there's at least one that invites us to think rather than emote, to reflect rather than react.
Santayana had another quote, too: "Only the dead have seen the end of war." I also hope he was wrong about that.