I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Why I do not celebrate al-Zarqawi's death

By Hume's Ghost

Let me start by saying that I do not begrudge those who are celebrating al-Zarqawi's death the right to take solace in it. They believe that his death signals a victory in Iraq and/or against terrorism and that this will help achieve peace in Iraq. That is an admirable thing to be happy about. I hope they are correct. But since a number of figures in the media have taken to using Zarqawi's death as the latest means of playing "gotcha" with their political opponents, I'd like to take a moment to explain why I do not celebrate al-Zarqawi's death.

First, as an example of the "gotcha" and celebrating that I'm talking about, consider this video, compliments of Michelle Malkin, who says that "it drives the Left mad." For the sake of argument we will assume here that "the Left" means anyone who does not share Mrs. Malkin's exuberance over the death of al-Zarqawi.

Al-Zarqawi's death does not drive me mad. Nor do the reports that this is good news in Iraq drive me mad. In fact, I hope that this is true and the chaos and misery in Iraq will lessen as a consequence. And neither does the video drive me mad. But it does unsettle me, yet this has nothing to do with my "poubt[ing]" for partisan reasons.

The following reasons are why the video unsettles me.

1) As a matter of principle, I do not believe the act of killing another human is in itself ever something to be celebrated; I do not celebrate death. If the death of al-Zarqawi means that there will be less death and horror in Iraq as a result, then that is what we are to celebrate. Al-Zarqawi's death is but a means to that end and it is important to draw the distinction between his death and the consequences of that death, otherwise we dehumanize ourselves, we become desensitized to the act of killing, which should always be a solemn affair. "Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster" and what not.

2) In the video you will notice that President Bush says that Al-Zarqawi has been brought to justice. He has not been brought to justice, he was killed. This may have been, and for all I know, most probably was the only way to stop the horrors being committed by al-Zarqawi, but killing him has nothing to do with justice. Bringing him to justice would have meant having him stand trial for his crimes against humanity, holding him accountable before a court of law. That is the concept of justice that the civilized world has adopted. The other is punitive and vengeful - the Biblical conception of justice - and we know that for much of time that the Biblical conception of justice dominated Western society, society was not just, but unjust.

3) I am weary of the claim that Zarqawi's death means that the killing and chaos in Iraq will subside as a consequence. While al-Zarqawi is responsible for some of the most heinous acts of barbarity in Iraq, it is estimated that his attacks only represent ten percent of the total number of attacks in the country, and that his importance to the insurgency has been exaggerated. [source]

So I do not feel that celebrating is in order so long as death and mayhem in Iraq persists. I believe it calls for cautious optimism, but that there is nothing to celebrate until peace has been brought to the region. And even then it will be a time for reflection upon the cost upon which that peace was bought. Which leads me to the next point.

4) There is a point raised in that video by Eric Alterman that goes unaddressed. Before the invasion of Iraq the United States had the opportunity to take out al-Zarqawi but chose not to because it was felt that eliminating him would undermine the case for invading Iraq. In essence, it was more important to be able to achieve a war with Iraq, as an adjunct of the "war on terror," than it was to stop al-Zarqawi.

With that in mind, I believe that consideration of the cost that the "victory" of al-Zarqawi's death was purchased is pertinent to whether or not this is something worth celebrating.

I consider the following the costs of achieving al-Zarqawi's death now, as opposed to before the invasion of Iraq:

- World opinion turned against the United States
- The legitimacy of the UN and international law was undermined by the invasion, making it more likely that other nations might also adopt the principle of unilateral preventative strikes.
- We have departed from fifty plus years of diplomacy where collective security was the emphasis. The go-it alone attitude we have adopted shifts the burden of global security onto ourselves, forcing us to devote more resources towards the military while diverting those resources away from other societal needs.
- As a concomitant of the above three points, the US has squandered the opportunity that the overwhealming support and sympathy the world offered the US in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks provided. The goodwill and sentiment could have been used to push for greater international efforts to secure lose nuclear materials ( such as Russia's) so that terrorists will not have easy access to the material in the first place.
- The invasion of an oil rich Middle Eastern country with troop commitments until at least 2009 reinforces Muslims worst fears about the US.
- Our military has been "stretched thin" by simultaneous deployments in Iraq and Afhganistan (also see here).
- The war in Iraq has cost over 200 billon dollars, and the final costs could end up at around a trillion dollars, at a time when we are projected for a ten year trillion dollar deficit.
- Global terrorist activity has increased since the invasion.
- The invasion turned Iraq into the "global center of suicide terrorism."
- The invasion generated terrorists.
- While our attention and resources have been diverted to Iraq, a nation that had no nuclear program, both North Korea and Iran have moved forward on their actual nuclear programs.
- The coast guard has gone underfunded, and our borders and ports remain unsecure.
- 2,708 soldiers have lost their lives in Iraq, and "at least 18,254 U.S. troops have been wounded in action." A conservative estimate of the number of Iraqi dead is a little over 38,000.

These are the reasons I do not celebrate al-Zarqawi's death. I am glad that he is gone, I hope that his death will signal a turning point in Iraq, and I hope that this will help bring an end to the insurgency. But I do not feel that celebrating is in order. And that is what unsettles me about the video and the game of "gotcha." It is glib, insulting, and petty over a matter that should not be partisan.

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