For just over a week now, friends who know that I had a ringside seat to 9/11 in New York City have been asking me what I thought about the killing of Osama bin Laden. In truth, I haven't known how to answer them.
I stood on the Brooklyn Bridge and watched the south tower fall. I lived with the smell of burning human flesh haunting the streets of my Brooklyn neighborhood, across the harbor from Ground Zero. My family and I took donations of food and money, and our sorrow, to the neighborhood firehouse (Engine 205, Ladder 118), which lost eight men on September 11. I went to firefighters' funerals, and saw little children say goodbye to their daddies.
I was part of a journalist contingent that accompanied President Bush to the restricted Ground Zero site. I looked out over the vast smoking crater, filled with twisted steel, acrid smoke, and anonymous souls crawling through the foulness looking for the dead, and I thought, This is what Hell is.
If you had told me that fall that I would ever not know how to feel when I heard the news that the man most responsible for this evil had been brought to justice, I wouldn't have believed you. The thought would have been inconceivable. And yet, here I am, cheated of my long-expected catharsis.
It's not that I think Bin Laden didn't deserve his fate. He did, and I am grateful for the skill and the courage of the Navy SEALs who executed this devil.
It's not that I've become a pacifist. I believe there can be a such thing as just war. If killing Bin Laden isn't an act of just warfare, nothing is.
It's not even that I've become a better Christian over the years, though I hope that is so. I have learned that it's never right to rejoice in the deaths of others, even monsters like Osama -- but this is not so much a God thing as a daddy thing.
Ages ago, my mother would see some heinous criminal on the news, and say sadly, "Just think: he was somebody's precious baby once upon a time." I used to think that was sentimental claptrap. And you know, I still kind of do. But I'm a father now, and was surprised last week by the same embarrassingly tender thought that my mother has. There was a time when a man just like me held his newborn son in his arms, and loved him as I have loved my boys.
He did not dream that the boy would one day grow up to be one of history's most notorious mass murderers. He could not have imagined that his son's life would end this way. I don't know why, but that gets to me. But that is not the reason why I can't feel much of anything over Osama's death.
You know what it is? Why I don't have it in me to exult over this grim, necessary deed? It's not virtue. It's fatigue.
Hating Osama bin Laden and all he stood for was, for me, virtually all-consuming the first couple of years after 9/11. I hated him with a passion so pure it sometimes seemed to give meaning and direction to my life. To not hate him with all I had in me was to risk breaking faith with the dead of 9/11. I could not love them if I didn't hate him. That's what I thought.
When it came time to go to war with Iraq, I did not question the cause. Hate covered a multitude of misgivings. Maybe Iraq didn't have anything to do with 9/11, but somebody had to pay for what Osama did. Iraq would do. I sat in a bar in Midtown Manhattan and watched CNN broadcast images of the first bombs falling on Baghdad, and I thought: Good.
But it wasn't good. Now, nearly 10 years on, the cost of that war, both human and financial, has proved grievous. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that our nation's righteous anger over the evil that Osama wrought caused us to make a catastrophic misjudgement. It did that to me. Wrath wrung me out, and has left me suspicious of passion.
Even so, I find something inhuman about people who lack any trace of righteous anger. The philosopher Josef Pieper taught that we shouldn't refuse all wrathfulness, because "the power of anger is actually the power of resistance in the soul." If we do not experience anger in the face of great evil or injustice, how will we find the strength to resist it? In some real sense, the degree that we hate evil is also the degree to which we love goodness. It was not wrong to believe that fidelity to the memory of the 9/11 dead required dedication to visiting justice upon their murderers.
The danger, however, is that we will allow our hatred of evil to slip the reins of our reason, and trample all prudence and scruple. Zealous anger makes fools of us. The most regrettable judgments I've made in my life were driven by a white-hot love of justice that burned so brightly it made everything outside of it seem like darkness. I am grateful that the U.S. military did what it had to do with Osama, then dumped his miserable corpse into the ocean before any of us had the possibility of treating ourselves to the poisonous pleasures of long-imagined vengeance.
"War is always a defeat for humanity," said Blessed John Paul II. Even just ones. Osama's killing was necessary, morally defensible and a victory over Islamist terror. But a defeat all the same.