Maybe it's the fact that it's finals week, and am up to my neck in work. Maybe it's the persistent lousy weather (I don't ever remember having to wear a heavy jacket during finals week of spring semester). But although I see the death of bin Laden as an unalloyed good, I'm not ready to join in the celebrations.
First of all, they seem out of place. The comparisons to VE and VJ day are inevitable, I suppose, but they aren't apt. True, there was celebrating on VE day, even though there were still months of hard fighting ahead against the Japanese, but most Americans didn't expect that. They had believed all along that Tokyo was acting as a puppet of Berlin, and that the surrender of Germany would lead immediately to the end of the fighting in the Pacific as well. The new Truman administration knew better, as did the men who had encountered the Japanese in combat and understood how they fought. There wasn't much in the way of celebration of VE day on Okinawa and the Philippines.
Surely, the celebrations of VE Day and VJ Day were appropriate because they represented the destruction of the Axis war machine and the return of peace. What does the death of bin Laden mean? The end of patdowns and full-body scanners at airports? The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan? We all know that's not happening anytime soon. Indeed, we're now being put on alert about further al-Qaeda attacks.
At best, what happened over the weekend could be compared to the death of Hitler on April 30, 1945--eight days before VE Day. The news was warmly welcomed, of course, but there wasn't anything like the widespread spontaneous celebration that we saw on Sunday night. In fact, bin Laden's demise probably counts for even less than Hitler's, since it's unlikely that he had any real control over al-Qaeda operations in the past few years. It's hard to run a worldwide terrorist operation when you can't even use a telephone.
The comparison to Hitler leads me to the other reason why I haven't been jumping for joy. After Hitler's death Stalin was determined that he was going to get hold of the body. The Nazis recognized this, which is why they had it burned--unfortunately for them, there wasn't enough gasoline for a proper cremation. But as soon as Soviet troops entered the city, a special detachment of NKVD was tasked with finding his remains and spiriting them back to Moscow as soon as possible. Those remains were subjected to repeated testing over the next 25 years before finally being incinerated and scattered into a river in 1970.
By contrast, what has happened to bin Laden's body? Today it lies at the bottom of the Indian Ocean. Don't get me wrong. I don't believe that there was a conspiracy--that he was secretly released, or any foolishness like that. I'm certain that he's dead. But I'm puzzled by the apparent haste to get rid of the body. The only reason I've heard so far for handling things in this manner was the need to follow Islamic funeral protocols--a Muslim is expected to be buried within twenty-four hours of death. Not only does this strike me as an incredibly weak justification, but if it was done for the sake of Muslim sensibilities it has demonstrably not worked.
Would it have been a big problem to hang onto the body for a while? Not for the purpose of dragging it through the streets of New York City (although I understand why some might find that appealing), but to be able to pull it out for display whenever someone suggests that he's not really dead. Worried about his grave becoming a shrine for Muslim extremists? Fine--once it lost its usefulness, it could have been cremated and dumped, just as the Russians did with Hitler's bones in 1970.
Why does this matter? Because Bin Laden's leadership of al-Qaeda has been largely symbolic, which means that his death only serves the larger ends of the War on Terror to the extent that the terrorists themselves believe it and are demoralized by it. The quick disposal of the body opens the floodgates to the sort of conspiracy theories that already run wild in the Islamic world. Mark my words, it will not be long before we are hearing reports of Elvis-style sightings of Osama. He may even prove to be of greater service to the cause of Islamism dead than alive.