So what's a Buddhist to say about last night's news? The death of Osama bin Laden came as a huge surprise, with the President interrupting our evening with his announcement. Do we condemn the taking of life, or celebrate the demise of a man whose past actions and future intentions are equally and unquestionably evil? In an ideal world, retribution is hardly a noble, less still a Buddhist practice. It can be said to merely perpetuate the cycle of violence and to generate unwished-for karmic response. On the other hand, in the real world, I'll confess to a certain satisfaction, and a sense of justice fulfilled.
Will the careful preparation and apparently impeccable execution of this operation do anything to silence--or even quiet--those critics who complain about Obama's equanimity and patience, his insistence on examining a situation from all sides, with an eye to the eventual outcome? Probably not. And yet the story, insofar as it is known to date, suggests that he brought all those qualities to bear, along with a great deal of courage. The action was surely fraught with risks. It could have very easily ended up like Jimmy Carter's disastrous--and widely ridiculed--attempt to rescue the American hostages in Iran. Its success was just as surely due to the several months that were devoted, since last August, to the verification of intelligence and the meticulous planning. It was, from all I hear, a faultless operation, for which we have not only the skills of the special forces involved, but also the rigor of their commander to thank.
The statement announcing the event was also classical Obama. He carefully avoided boasting, claimed an appropriate amount of credit for himself and was generous with the credit he assigned to others--including his predecessor, whose rash abandonment of the hunt for Osama in favor of a dubious and unrelated war proved a grave setback to his promise for justice. In reminding the American people that this was not a part of some war against Islam, he wisely and generously recalled the same assertion made by George W. Bush in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. His tone was measured, calm, authoritative, and he projected a quiet, confident strength--beside which his current critics and opponents look like a bunch of ill-informed and mean-spirited hysterics. Chalk a big one up for Obama in the political sphere.
And then... retribution is one thing. Prevention is another. Being of a generation who remember such things, here's a question I ask myself: knowing what we now know about 20th century history--and had we been able--could we, should we have assassinated Adolf Hitler in the later 1930s, before he unleashed his madness on the world? Should we, if we could, assassinate Colonel Muammar Ghadaffi today? Where there's a deadly snake that threatens whole populations and that could be clearly and cleanly rendered harmless by decapitation, are we right to cut off its head? My head and heart say one thing; my gut says something else entirely.