It was a bit startling to watch crowds of mostly college-aged youths raucously celebrating in front of the White House after President Barack Obama reported the death of Osama bin Laden.
I was watching the celebration on TV with amusement until my own unamused collegiate son came along to kill my buzz.
"They're celebrating a man's death?" he exclaimed with all of the wisdom of an undergraduate philosophy major. "Has there ever been a time in history when Americans celebrated an individual's death?"
Without much thought, I responded, "Hitler?" It worked. Although some people unintentionally trivialize Hitler's unspeakable horrors through overuse of his name, in this instance I felt as though I was standing on sturdy ground.
As I told my kid, I was not celebrating "death"; I was celebrating justice.
Justice in my view is basically the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
When others commit wrongs against me, as bin Laden did in launching al-Qaida terrorist attacks against America, I can go Old Testament, as in "an eye for an eye," or I can go New Testament, as in "turn the other cheek." (I don't know all that happened between the Old and New Testaments but I am endlessly fascinated by how much God seems to mellow out with a new team of writers.)
So when I heard that a U.S. Navy Seals team had turned Pakistan into "Paybackistan," as "The Daily Show" called it, I felt an Old Testament moment. I was hardly alone. The surge of celebration that followed bin Laden's death displayed a decade of pent-up eye-for-an-eye rage and resentment at how tightly the bearded fanatic has held us hostage to his villainy.
I was ready for payback. Every time I have looked twice at a strange package over the past decade or faced a groping at an airport security checkpoint, I felt like I was riding with bin Laden, smiling through his beard on my shoulder like a big bird dropping of unfinished business.
But I don't celebrate death. That would lower me to the level of the bin Laden that the world saw in a tape supplied to Al-Jazeera in October 2004. In that tape he boldly admitted to orchestrating the Sept. 11 attacks and warned that we could face more. I don't celebrate his death, although it is tempting.
Instead, I celebrate the justice, however belated, that his death brings to his victims. It honors their memories for us to know that bin Laden could run, but not hide forever.
Yet, after bin Laden is gone, al-Qaida remains. We must brace ourselves for more of their murderous mischief. As emotionally satisfying as it might be for us to have cut off the head of the organization's snake, al-Qaida is notoriously decentralized. As its leaders compete for bin Laden's inspirational and organizational pre-eminence, they may pose a bigger threat to each other than they do to the rest of us. We can only hope.
Fortunately, bin Laden's death comes ironically at a time when his brand of violent religious extremism is losing its grip. In the hearts and minds of a rising Middle East generation, al-Qaida competes with "Arab Spring," an unexpected and hard-to-predict surge toward pluralism, self-expression and freedom from autocratic overlords. The United States must find ways encourage those principles without appearing to be meddling in the movement.
We also must find ways to pursue justice without committing injustice. That's not always easy. New details about the bin Laden raid already have reignited the debate over waterboarding, an "enhanced interrogation" technique, also known as torture, that simulates drowning.
Some defenders of Bush administration policies claim that "enhanced interrogations" extracted critical clues that led to bin Laden's hideout. However, others, including former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in a Monday interview with the conservative Newsmax magazine, flatly deny that harsh interrogation techniques led to bin Laden's house.
The debate goes on. It's not always easy to play by humanitarian rules in the fog of war and counterterrorism. But it leads to victories that are worth celebrating.