Let’s start, Emily , with what we agree on: Osama Bin Laden was a bloody-minded criminal who killed or contributed to the killing of thousands and the suffering and grief of thousands more. Where we differ may be in how we talk about a mass murderer. I don’t think the concept of “evil” is crude. Evil exists. “Evil incarnate” doesn’t. Evil is a descriptive idea, not a living, breathing person. I don’t think Bin Laden was “evil incarnate” any more than Hitler or Stalin were. Mythologizing our enemies this way is counterproductive.
We’ve been at war with Bin Laden and his organization for considerably more than a decade, though in the last 10 years, his priority status has risen. All this time, we’ve been hunting him and his henchmen with a range of intelligence assets, the most powerful military and the most advanced technology on the planet. Plenty of time, you’d think, to learn about the world in which he lives, to understand his relationships and locate his vulnerabilities. Yet when he’s killed, senior officials say things about his behavior that make no sense on strictly cultural grounds. And not just any officials, but John O. Brennan, the president’s chief counterterrorism adviser, who has been active in the search for Bin Laden for 15 years. This concerns me. Maybe you’ll say I’m being picky-they got him, didn’t they? But think of how many lives might have been saved if they’d gotten him years ago. If people at the top don’t know that Bin Laden wouldn’t use his wife as a human shield, what else don’t they know?
We desperately need to strip away the high gloss we apply to figures like Bin Laden and know them better. While liking zucchini doesn’t make the al-Qaida leader a better person, it makes him less of a caricature, and turning him into a caricature doesn’t help anyone, least of all those who want to see him and people like him out of business. Understanding our enemies-acknowledging their human complexities and vulnerabilities-isn’t just morally responsible. It’s also the most effective way to defeat them.