There are certain world events so large they sear themselves onto your brain. Many people can tell you exactly where they were when they learned, say, that President Kennedy had been shot, or that a small fleet of planes had been flown into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a Pennsylvania field.
News of the expiration of Osama bin Laden will probably be one of those moments. I heard tell of it while I was at an Applebee's in Oregon with several members of my extended family. The waitress came by our table to ask if we'd heard that the man behind the September 11 atrocities was finally good and dead.
The Bush administration had subsumed the hunt for bin Laden into a larger War on Terror for a couple of reasons. They weren't having any luck running him to ground and they worried what they were dealing with was not a top-down effort but a many-headed hydra. Lop off bin Laden's head, the theory went, and plenty of new terrorists will rise up and take his place.
Now, well, we'll see about that. Both sides of the firefight Sunday got roughly what they wanted. But it will be awhile before we see if America got what it needed. For the sake of the peace of nations, let us hope so.
On his deathbed, the great Israelite King David told his son, the future King Solomon, to dispatch his old enemies: "Let not [their] hoar head[s] go down to the grave in peace." The dying monarch knew that to let these old foes be -- to allow them to die in their sleep of old age -- would be a rebuke to the power of his regime and a threat to its continuation.
And Americans just knew that if bin Laden were allowed to continue to tweak them or even die anonymously somewhere that this would be a great blow to national honor. That looked increasingly likely with every day of the near decade that it took to kill him. But now he has been gunned down in a brilliantly planned mission by American intelligence and special forces. His body is currently property of the US government.
US officials have said that Osama's corpse will be handled in accordance with Islamic tradition. The question is worth asking: Why? Shortly after September 11, several intemperate commentators suggested that his body be wrapped in pigflesh before its burial, thus cutting off his access to 72 virgins in Paradise.
The best reason for America not to molest its great enemy's remains is simple. A much bolder statement needs to be made about the illegitimacy of Osama's jihad. Put another way: to take such extreme measures would grant that Osama bin Laden could possibly go to heaven for (not in spite of) what he has done.
To keep Osama's purported martyrdom from inspiring others, the point needs to be made, loudly and repeatedly, that killing innocent people is not the path to heaven. This will put the US government, and Barack Obama in particular, in an an awkward spot. It is undoubtedly a theological statement and an uncomfortable one at that.
It is uncomfortable because to assert that Osama did not go to heaven is to suggest that he went to hell. That could be a problem, given the current state of America's religious ferment. As the controversy over Rev. Rob Bell's new book has shown us, a great number of religious Americans do not want to believe in eternal damnation.
The resources that can be used against Osama's legacy do not reside only in the traditions of the West. Peace-loving (or America-fearing) Muslims of every theological stripe do not have to challenge to ideal of holy war to insist that Osama's jihad was not, in fact, a true jihad.
Sure, as some religious observers have pointed out, no Islamic Vatican exists to finally settle this dispute. However, a lot of Islamic states have imams on the payrolls. If these countries were to insist that the clerics preach this week and for the next month against blowing up innocent noncombatants and suggest that Osama bin Laden might not make it to Paradise after all, it would go a long way toward keeping his particular sort of madness from spreading.