Death of a Salesman

Very strange. When I heard President Obama announce the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of Navy Seal Team Six, Arthur Miller's 1949 play Death of a Salesman leapt to mind.

This perhaps irrational mental leap is not, on reflection, totally mad. The main character in the play, Willy Loman, never had the charisma or success that he craved while, in some perverse way, Osama did. But both were traveling salesmen living on pat successes and both were ultimately failures.

Osama tried to sell the Muslim world a vision of a puritanical, medieval Islamic Caliphate, achieved by violence and driven by hate for the West in general and the United States in particular. He would tear down the infidels and the Middle East governments who let the West defile the holy lands. Terror was the weapon he was selling, and he found many buyers. He sold violence as the route to Arab glory and he inflicted much death and destruction. But when the end came, it was clear that Osama was as much of a failure as Willy Loman with only memories of past successes to comfort him. He had overthrown no governments, seized control of no nations and could not preach his message other than on increasingly poor quality audio and video tapes.

Yes, he had followers and franchises such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), but they operated independently. Osama did not even fulfill his narrative as a fighter in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He was living in a million dollar compound, quite comfortably.

More importantly, Osama lived to see an alternate vision for an Arab and Muslim future overwhelm his own. The "Arab Spring" that emerged from Tunisia and Egypt spread a far different vision across the Middle East and North Africa. Instead of terror, this vision was based on peaceful protests. Instead of medieval authority, it called for democracy. Instead of suppressing women, it was led by them. Instead of jihadists, it was based on citizens. Humiliation will be banished and dignity restored by the people's hands, not by the jihadists terror.

There was no sequel to Death of a Salesman, so we do not know how Willy's sons turned out. The prospects were mixed at best. The prospects for the Arab Spring are similarly uncertain in many countries. Dictators will prevail in some at least in the short term. And jihadists may get sway in others. But the fear has left the people and the arc of history is bending to more representative and responsible governments.

Two groups who should worry about the intelligence taken from the Abbottabad compound are the Saudi princes and others who have financed al Qaeda and perhaps the Pakistani officials on the payroll. Financial records are far more likely to be in the cache than tactical plans.

It may take a while before we can consign Osama bin Laden to the dustbin of history. We must first deal with his successor, the owlish Ayman al-Zawahiri and perhaps the Taliban's Mullah Omar. The information found at the compound may be helpful, and they are certainly in the process of reassessing their prospects and locations.

Whatever has been found, it will be exploited by the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Under the command of now-retired General Stanley McChrystal JSOC developed a capability to almost instantaneously exploit new intelligence. As practiced by McChrystal's forces in Iraq, it was not unusual for a new operation to be launched while the operation that developed the intelligence was still ongoing. The use of an onscene facial photo of bin Laden to get a 95% certain identification in seconds was an example of this capability.

I know it is un-Christian to rejoice in the death of any human being or to thirst for vengeance. But the relief and joy that greeted the news is perfectly understandable. Perhaps it would be wise to follow a dictum attributed to that most American of authors, Mark Twain:

"I've never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure."