Responses to Osama bin Laden's death have ranged from jubilation to sober gratitude that a man who incited mass murder and acts of terror all over world has been removed from the scene. And while some of us are conflicted about the method chosen to mete out this "justice" -- the taking of a life without so much as a trial -- nearly all agree that justice has indeed been served.
But what about those who don't? The sympathizers with and followers of bin Laden's worldview for whom his killing by American forces is yet another outrage? Their existence, and their presumed outrage, leaves a palpable anxiety that Osama bin Laden's death may motivate even more terrorist activity and spur recruitment, allowing bin Laden to strike again and again from the grave.
The night President Obama announced bin Laden's death, I heard someone compare bin Laden to Hitler -- two men nearly universally regarded as perpetrators of unimaginable evil. Two men whose humanity was so distorted as to be barely recognizable, and yet still compelling enough in their charismatic hatred to lure countless other alienated souls into their webs of evil. In both cases, the world heaved a collective sigh of relief when these men were gone.
The death of bin Laden, like that of Hitler, can be seen both as the end of evil and as an opening to create a new reality, one that offers an alternative to his would-be followers, that can draw a generation of disaffected youth away from the path of destruction and onto a path of constructive engagement with their communities.
The opening in the aftermath of Hitler and WWII was seized upon to create the Marshall Plan, a visionary and practical (though of course in many ways imperfect) approach to victory that sought to raise up the vanquished and reweave the shattered fabric of human society. The healing effect -- socially, politically and economically -- of the Marshall Plan contributed to a peace unparalleled on the European continent, a stark and instructive contrast to the way the seeds of enmity and resentment were sown following the First World War.
What if, at this pivotal moment in history, the U.S. sought to lead the world on a path of reconciliation rather than a path of war? What if, together, the world's leaders seized Osama bin Laden's death as an opportunity to launch a global Marshall-like effort to lift up the downtrodden and take seriously the grievances that have provided such a rich seedbed for bin Laden and his ilk? What if we committed ourselves and our collective resources as fully to the creative and compassionate alleviation of poverty, injustice and oppression as we have to the so-called war on terror?
It would not be easy -- neither was the Marshall Plan, a huge financial outlay coming on the heels of a long and painful period of depression and war -- but it could have profound effects on the long-term peace and stability of Middle East, and by extension the rest of the world. It would take the steam from those who have been, or would be, lured into terrorism. It would help nurture the nascent Arab Spring and bring new hope, new peace, new stability into a long-troubled region. And it would redeem the humanity of the world's powerful, who have too often chosen war. The opening is before us. The choice, once again, is ours.