Are you ready to dance on Osama's grave?

The apparent architect of our worst nightmare is seen celebrating our losses. Will we do the same when he comes to a violent end?

Published December 14, 2001 8:35PM (EST)

Have you thought about how you're going to react when you hear that Osama bin Laden is dead? Are you going to take a cue from the evildoer himself? Maybe do some copycat gloating and chuckling in the wake of his videotaped celebration of Sept. 11 carnage? Or will you opt for a more decorous display of relief? A moment of silence, perhaps?

Chances are, you will need to decide soon. Despite cautionary statements by the government, bin Laden appears to be doomed. There is that $25 million bounty on his head, as well as a highly motivated military narrowing his options for hiding. And all the while, the tension is building at home. Yes, it was big news when bin Laden's deputy, Mohammed Atef, was killed. And it was exciting to hear that the Taliban fled with relatively little encouragement. But our suspense has only increased. We are waiting for the capture and, very likely, the death of Osama bin Laden. Only then will we have our release.

And what will we do? Let's say he is killed -- which is very likely in light of rumors that he will fight to the death -- and you find out at work. Will you laugh, dance, scream "Yessss!" and high-five your co-workers? He is, after all, the alleged mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks, the embassy bombings and the attack on the USS Cole. At this point is it necessary to stifle expressions of joy because this is, after all, the violent death of a human being?

Consider the fact that we are one of the few Western democracies that has yet to abolish the death penalty. Ours is a country in which quite a few citizens celebrate the execution of convicted criminals -- not just with quiet satisfaction but with parties held outside prison walls as the condemned receives a lethal injection. It is perfectly acceptable, apparently, for Americans to be happy and relieved on these occasions.

But these occasions are preceded by certain rituals of justice -- a trial, appeals, and the potential for a last-minute commutation of the sentence. Should it make a difference that, where bin Laden is concerned, it is unlikely that due process will be an option? Does it matter that this execution might be more of a vigilante thing, a violent confrontation without dialogue or mercy?

We were shocked when we saw images of Palestinians dancing in the streets after the Sept. 11 massacre. We could not comprehend joy as a response to the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians, executed for the simple reason that they were Americans. Would our public demonstrations of elation when bin Laden is killed be hypocritical in that case? Some would argue that there is no comparison, that our execution of Osama is not an act of terror, or even revenge. It is justice -- a little rough perhaps -- but justice with the added purpose of sending a message to the terrorists. Might as well make it loud and clear.

Yet, even if we know and are happy with our planned responses to Osama's death, how will we really know bin Laden is dead? What if the man they kill is one of his rumored body-doubles? Do we have dental records or fingerprints of bin Laden for verification? Do we have confidence in voice recognition technology? What if bin Laden's body is obliterated by a bomb, making identification impossible? What if one of our bunker-buster bombs permanently buries him in a deep cave leaving us "virtually" sure he is dead? Some of us will need certainty to break out the champagne. Remember what U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard used to say in the "The Fugitive": "I need a body."

It is also quite likely that killing bin Laden will not stop terrorism. It may not even stop bin Laden's followers from picking up where he left off. There already has been talk that bin Laden's reputed deputy, Ayman Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri, is the real brains behind the loose-knit network of Islamic militants and that we must capture or kill al-Zawahiri if we want to truly destroy the leadership. Al-Zawahiri was recently reported to have been injured or killed by an attack, but is there another person who will competently fill the leadership void? For some, it will be hard to be completely joyous, knowing that we may not have accomplished our goal of stopping international terrorism.

Then again, we could be very happy about having put would-be terrorist leaders on notice: If you harm Americans, the U.S. will hunt you down and kill you. But will they care? We know now that there are terrorists willing to die for their cause.

Perhaps all that we know is that we will respond with confusion when we hear the news of Bin Laden's death. And no matter what we do -- dance or sigh -- we know that the feelings that we have will be tainted by sadness. Inevitably, we will remember why we were hunting him down in the first place. As a lawyer, I have found that the satisfaction or relief that an execution can provide is illusory. Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh may be dead, but the victims' families are still in pain. Their losses are the same.

I, for one, will probably remember where I was when I heard that Osama bin Laden is dead. But I probably won't dance or laugh out loud. As an American, I will feel vindicated. As a human, I will remember to mourn his victims once again.

By Gawain Charlton-Perrin

Gawain Charlton-Perrin is an attorney and writer in Chicago.

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Osama Bin Laden