If I were to ask, “Who was Osama bin Laden?” the answers would be many and varied. The debate over whether the White House and Navy SEALs should release photos of the deceased terrorist mastermind cannot be won. To show them will likely reveal a face badly damaged by high-powered rifles, fueling some to believe it’s not really him. Regardless of the extent of the damage, others would rage at the way their symbolic leader was killed. To not show the photos will make (likely those same) people believe the SEALs never got him, that it was all a political stunt.
I happen to believe they got him, I happen to believe he was probably not identifiable after they shot him in the head with high-powered rifles (though I could be wrong), and I happen to think there’s been no reason for a political stunt recently, nothing to distract the country from, now that the birther argument should be over (as if it ever should have started).
There will be endless argument over whether he should have been buried at sea. Conspiracy theorists will insist that it’s yet another reason to believe the whole thing was faked, while others will insist that allowing bin Laden’s body to be anywhere other than the bottom of the Arabian Sea would do nothing but sanctify him to those who followed him, and make him a monument to martyrdom.
But what struck me last night, as I thought about that burial at sea, was what it must have been like for the men who did the job.
In the comfort of our homes, when we read or see or hear about the effort to fight the Taliban, Al Qaeda and all their fractured terrorist offspring, when we see the video of 9/11, or the USS Cole, or other attacks, it is easy to think of Osama bin Laden as larger than life. He becomes a symbol, something more than a human (or less, depending on perspective). We knew he was tall; 6’4″. We knew he was charismatic enough to generate a substantial and somehow entranced group of followers. We knew he and Khalid Sheikh Muhammad somehow orchestrated the worst thing we could have imagined for our country – and spectacularly. We knew that we’ve wanted him dead for more than a decade.
In the approach to that house in Pakistan, the Navy SEALs knew who they wanted to find. In the White House Situation Room, the president, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Navy commander, the secretaries of state and defense, the counterterrorism advisors… they all knew who they were going in for.
In the firefight, in the dark, the only people in the world who could have pulled off the job knew what they were doing.
But when it was over, when the lights came on and the bitter air of gunfire had cleared, what they saw was a man.
Just a man.
When they picked him up and hauled his body away, he was just a man.
When they put him in a weighted bag and slid him off a board into the Arabian Sea, he was just a man.
Not a monster.
I am not saying he was innocent. I believe he deserved to die. But the fact remains that we will never know what made him such a monster in life… not really. We will never really know what created and fostered and grew the evil in his mind and soul. But when his eyes were closed in death, he was no bigger than any other man. No smarter, no better or worse. He was only a man.
It’s astonishing, in a way, isn’t it? How could this person who embodied everything we hated and everything we feared, in the end, be just a man? How, in the end, could he weigh no more than a man? Feel no different than a man? Look no different if revealed: bruises, maybe, scars, perhaps some from childhood. He was once a child, a baby born without the desire to kill. If a total stranger, someone who knew nothing of 9/11, came upon his body, how could they not know what he had done?
But they wouldn’t.
And so I wondered: when those Navy SEALs slid his battered, bloodied body into the sea… did they still see him as larger than life? Did it stun them, for just a moment, that he was nothing more than any other body they may have seen? Years from now, though they will know the historical implications of what they did in that Pakistani house surrounded by high walls and razor wire, will the reality of their memory make him any bigger than any other man? Though they will know what it meant to the world, will they feel they had slain a giant? Or will it be just like any other mission accomplished?
Lionized in life, diminished in death, smart enough to execute disaster and cowardly enough to hide behind his wife.
Just a man.