A Woman and A Courier: On the Death of Osama bin Laden

I heard the news at 7 in the morning, driving home from my boyfriend’s house in that half-asleep 7 in the morning way. I was looking at the trees which seemed to have budded overnight, half listening to whatever overplayed thing they were playing on KSUI. Then the news came on. Osama bin Laden was killed by US troops at a compound in Pakistan. One of bin Laden’s sons and a woman and a courier were also killed.

The report went on. The President was pleased. The United States acted alone in this endeavor, without the knowledge or cooperation of other nations in the region. Bin Laden wasn’t actually living in a cave! He was in a multi-million dollar compound! The President talked in his sonorous way about the closing of a chapter, about a small group of US forces acting on his orders, with great care.

By the time I got home, they’d moved on to speculation and history. Would it really be possible to get aircraft into the compound unnoticed? Was Pakistan actually in on the arrangement because they were sick of dealing with bin Laden? A reporter talked about his childhood and his education and his turn to radical Islam. The 1998 attacks on the World Trade Center were mentioned. Bill Clinton spoke about that, out of the past, via a clip, sounding rather young. September 11. Tora Bora. Manhunt. Movements.

Then there were the celebrations — people singing the National Anthem outside the White House, people chanting USA! USA! USA! at a baseball game. My email brought a newsletter from a wine store urging me to raise a glass to the death of bin Laden.

No one mentioned the woman and the courier. I started to wonder if I had misheard. Maybe it was just the big guy, and I could worry simply about the ethical implications of assassination and not about what they call collateral damage. But no. The BBC says it was two couriers, two couriers and a woman. She was trying to be a human shield. She was like a woman in the Bible — no name, no job, just a tiny role in history. A woman at a well. A human shield.

Sometime on the afternoon or evening of September 11, 2001, after I finally dragged myself off my couch, where I’d felt pinned all day by Neal Conan blasting NPR listeners with the news, and even chastising one who suggested perhaps revenge was not the best option, I made a peace sign with masking tape on the window of my apartment. It stayed there till I moved out two years later. I felt ill that day because I knew we were going to war. I feel ill today because we did, and because we are still there.

People tend to regard pacifism as foolish at best and morally unforgivable at worst. Friends and strangers have told me it is a lazy philosophy. I suppose it is lazy, in that the answer to “should we go to war?” is always no. But it is not an easy philosophy to live with. You have to live with the idea of evil. You don’t get to think, “Well, of course I would have taken a shot at Hitler if I’d had a chance.” You feel sickened when your country kills someone, and you feel alienated from your country because everyone else seems. . . happy.

Lest there be any doubt, let me note for the record that I do not think bin Laden was a good guy. I do not defend his actions or his beliefs. But neither can I rejoice at his death, just as I cannot ignore that throwaway line at the end of the news report I first heard: a woman and a courier were also killed.

The passive voice takes away agency, but it cannot take away responsibility. The deaths caused in the name of one’s country are also one’s own. I’ve never learned how to handle that.

10 comments

  1. How we imagine these people is how we imagine their agency, just as it is to think about how we assign “guilt” and so on. Victim, criminal, lawful combatant, isn’t it just as well to stop at “there was violence, and that was wrong”?

    “Live with the idea of evil” is an interesting formation. Those who live comfortably with violence live with evil, but do not think of it?

  2. I do pretty much stop at “there was violence, and that was wrong.” But I sometimes worry that that’s a lazy formulation — or perhaps more precisely, I worry that condemning it is not enough. I’m simply not always sure what else to do.

  3. “My email brought a newsletter from a wine store urging me to raise a glass to the death of bin Laden.” Lest we forget that this war is about anything but capitalism.

    Also, what’s with a “courier” and a “woman”? Is “woman” a job description nowadays? If so, I’d like some back pay.

  4. Romeyn Prescott

    A friend of mine shared a link to this post. Here is what I commented on her page:
    —–
    I’m not sure where I fall on the Pacifism-o-meter, but as a general rule, I think it’s safe to say that DOING nothing SOLVES nothing. Problems like this aren’t simply going to go away if you ignore them or just get everyone in the same room to talk them out. Some people are simply BAD and need to be dealt with for the greater good. It is an unfortunate reality. I’m not happy that we had to do this, but I’m happy it’s DONE.
    —–
    As I re-read that, It strikes me that I might not know what it means to BE Pacifist. In any case, I thought I’d contribute to the discussion. I hope my contribution is welcome, and that it is not seen as antagonistic. Such is not my intent.

  5. Thanks, Romeyn — I welcome all comments, generally, and I don’t read yours as at all antagonistic. Being a pacifist, for me, is about constantly struggling with a part of my nature that is angry and that would like to act on that anger. It means that I don’t ever think that violence — particularly when carried out by the state — is an okay way to handle things. That doesn’t mean it isn’t sometimes, perhaps, necessary, or at least unavoidable, but I don’t think it’s okay.

    I like to think that pacifism isn’t about doing nothing. I am not sure exactly what greater good is served, in this case, by bin Laden’s assassination. But I may be wrong.

  6. Thanks, Laura. Not that it makes any difference to a boldly principled pacifist such as yourself, but I’d like to point out that the “courier” was not the local UPS driver, but a significant al-Qaeda operative through whom US forces had located and tracked bin Laden. Hardly an innocent, unlike (apparently) the woman who was killed.
    As a “shot at Hitler” not-quite pacifist, I have great admiration for absolutists like yourself. My grandfather was a CO in London during WW2, and I’m mostly very, very proud of him, but also not entirely sure that I agree with his decision in that context.
    And I hope you tell that wine store that you are boycotting them for their craven insensitivity. Worse than the tailgaters at the White House last night – at least they weren’t trying to make money. Ugh.

  7. Jenna – I think, sadly, that around conservative Muslims like UBL, being a woman _is_ more or less a job description, and the only one available.
    Romeyn – it strikes me that a principled pacifist could be happy (or maybe pleased is a better word) that it’s “been done” but nonetheless disagree that “we had to do it.” Laura?

  8. Jenna, for what it’s worth, late last night the woman was identified, perhaps wrongly, as one of bin Laden’s wives, a young woman. Which makes her a victim in all sorts of ways.

  9. My niece, Lucy King, posted on Facebook this morning the famous quotation from Gandalf, about not being too quick to mete out punishment, to deliver death for life. Years ago my old friend, the poet Alan Shapiro, wrote a poem called “The Courtesy” in which one of the things the living do is to bring the forgotten dead back to memory. I’m not interested in the “quantity” of ways that the woman, and the couriers, were victims. I’d like to know who they were. And it seems wrong to celebrate, as the media would like Americans to do. It’s a grave day. I didn’t hear Obama as sonorous. I heard him as absolutely unshakeable. No matter what one thinks, I wouldn’t want to be on his bad side.

  10. I vacillate on absolutist pacifism. I rationalize it this way: society is made up of many types, and maybe it takes the absolute pacifists to put the brakes on the hawks. (If so, we need more pacifists, because the hawks have a lead foot.)