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May 6, 2011 -- In Homer’s Iliad Trojan prince Hector is slain in combat by the Greek champion Achilles. But blinded by anger, Achilles desecrates Hector’s body, dragging it behind his chariot, denying it proper funeral rites, and angering the gods with this sacrilege.
Does the first great work of Western literature hold moral lessons for us concerning the disposition of Osama Bin Laden’s body?
When American intelligence located Bin Laden’s hideout, President Obama might have ordered the compound bombed, eliminating not only the top terrorist but also all physical traces of his existence. Instead, Obama sent in Navy SEALs, a far riskier option that yielded commensurately greater gains. The strike force recovered computer drives and a treasure trove of information that should help us to hunt down Bin Laden’s partners in carnage, and it yielded Bin Laden’s body, proof that he was dead.
But after DNA samples were taken and it was photographed, the body was given Muslim religious rites and buried at sea. Further, the administration refuses to release the photos of Bin Laden’s corpse.
Obama argued that he wanted to avoid offending Muslim sensitivities or having the photos act as “an incitement to additional violence or as a propaganda tool.” Is this a valid reason for his actions? Hardly!
The obvious assumption here that Obama doesn’t want us to notice is that many Muslims are not as offended, horrified, and disgusted by the life of a vicious killer responsible for the deaths of thousands in the name of their religion as they would be by seeing the photo of that moral monster’s corpse, or imagining it not being treated in accordance with their religion. That is to say, it assumes that many Muslims are moral midgets, their sentiments stunted by their pre-modern world view. And, in fact, there have been protests by Muslims against Bin Laden’s killing, honoring the al Qaeda leader as a martyr.
Obama certainly should not care about offending their sick sentiments. After all, the Nazis convicted at Nuremberg of war crimes and genocide were hanged, photos of their dead bodies released, the bodies cremated, and the ashes scattered in an unknown location. No one cared about offending Nazi sympathizers. In fact, the executions and photos of the bodies were strong statements that “This is justice!”
Islamic culture today is stumbling toward modernity. And we’re told that most Muslims are not terrorists and don’t support terrorism. Fine! Then those Muslims should be opposing mindless religious dogma—the toxic cultural soil from which terrorism grows—by upholding the Enlightenment values of reason, critical thinking, and tolerance. That means facing up to the evil of al Qaeda and Bin Laden.
The disposal of Bin Laden’s body at sea so soon after his death was also a problematic move by Obama. Obviously keeping the body a while longer would have allowed the administration to put to rest any claims that Bin Laden was still alive or questions about the nature of his death.
But more important, it would be useful for pathologists to study the brain of one of the world’s top psychopaths. No, I’m not suggesting that the deeds of mass murderers ultimately can be blamed on their biology. But what would we find in his brain? Abnormality? Or if it was a very normal brain, this would be stronger evidence that the Bin Ladens of the world are completely responsible for their actions. No insanity defense here.
One might still ask whether the display of Bin Laden’s body or the release of post-mortem photos would somehow be unseemly, similar to Hector’s sacrilege.
One might observe that in the United States a condemned murderer, no matter how heinous his crime, is given a last meal, offered access to clergy, allowed to pronounce last words. Do such criminals—who have taken the lives of others—deserve such humane treatment?
We afford them good treatment in part to make sure we remember that these are human lives—failed ones that deserve to be forfeited, to be sure, but human lives none the less. We do not want to become callous like murderers.
On the other hand, when such criminals have had their last meal, the loved ones of the victims who were murdered usually are afforded the opportunity to observe the criminal’s execution.
Little in life can be worse than the suffering of family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and other survivors of a murder victim. It is a pain that lasts the rest of one’s life and can make it impossible for one to experience the joys of life. How one copes with such a horror is a very personal matter. But some closure can often be accorded by looking upon the body of the murderer, of seeing with one’s own eyes that justice has been done.
Seeing the body—or photos—of Bin Laden certainly is the moral due of the relatives and friends of the victims of the 9/11 Islamist attacks and of the soldiers who have perished fighting terrorists. But Bin Laden’s attacks were on all Americans, and thus all Americans can experience some closure by looking upon the face of the monster who has done us so much harm.
Obama is to be congratulated for his efforts to bring Bin Laden to justice. But in the follow-up, he should concern himself not with the sentiments of those Muslins who will hate us no matter what, but rather, with justice for the American victims of Bin Laden.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.