Exalting in Severed Heads

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In war, it's worth remembering we adhere to civilized norms for our own benefit -- and not for our enemies

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In weekend columns, two prominent conservatives addressed the killing of Osama bin Laden. Writing in the New York Times, Ross Douthat explained why revenge is morally corrosive, and praised the U.S. for guarding against it. "We did not kick and humiliate Osama Bin Laden, or waterboard him, or parade him naked in front of a crowd of cheering New Yorkers," he wrote. "A speedy execution is at once the most extreme punishment human beings can impose and the punishment that offers the fewest opportunities for sadism and corruption in the people charged with imposing it."

It is difficult to imagine a more stark contrast than what Mark Steyn wrote in the Orange County Register:

After Kitchener slaughtered the jihadists of the day at the Battle of Omdurman in 1897, he made a point of digging up their leader the Mahdi, chopping off his head and keeping it as a souvenir. The Sudanese got the message. The British had nary a peep out of the joint until they gave it independence six decades later - and, indeed, the locals fought for King and (distant imperial) country as brave British troops during World War Two. Even more amazingly, generations of English schoolchildren were taught about the Mahdi's skull winding up as Lord Kitchener's novelty paperweight as an inspiring tale of national greatness.
Not a lot of that today. It's hard to imagine Osama's noggin as an attractive centerpiece at next year's White House Community Organizer of the Year banquet, and entirely impossible to imagine America's "educators" teaching the tale approvingly. So instead, even as we explain that our difficulties with this bin Laden fellow are nothing to do with Islam, no sir, perish the thought, we simultaneously rush to assure the Muslim world that, not to worry, we accorded him a 45-minute Islamic funeral as befits an observant Muslim.
That's why Pakistani big shots harbored America's mortal enemy and knew they could do so with impunity.

These columns reflect a deeper disagreement on the right about the nature of America, its people, and what we ought to guard against in the War on Terrorism. Traditional conservatives like Douthat believe that all human beings live in a fallen world, and so individuals and free nations alike must guard against the hubris, rash judgments, and corrupting influences that tempt us. Islamist terrorists pose a threat, and must be opposed. In fighting them, however, we must take care that we aren't goaded into strategic blunders, or induced to compromise our values: America is fundamentally strong, al Qaeda is weak, and we shouldn't forget it.  

Mark Steyn is less certain that the good guys are in the position of strength, and less cognizant that Americans are as capable of being corrupted as any humans. Confronted with falling birthrates in European countries, journalists who report on honor killings less than he'd like, and a minority of Westerners inclined to stop defending free speech the moment it offends Muslim activist sensibilities, Steyn has experienced over the last several years what he might call a crisis of civilizational confidence. As a result, he seems never to worry that the U.S. is doing too little to rein in its excesses, or that our overreactions are as fraught with peril as anything this enemy can inflict.

Though he is on point with some of his cultural criticism, especially as it pertains to speech codes, which he has heroically fought in a Canadian court, Steyn and others like him are allowing their sense of insecurity to get the best of their judgment. Take what he endorses in his latest column. How would you react if President Obama appeared on live television grasping the severed head of Osama bin Laden? Say that he kept it on his desk in the Oval Office as a souvenir. You'd be horrified, along with "America's educators" and the mainstream of every other profession too. That isn't so because our citizenry lacks confidence enough to fight al Qaeda -- it's because we rightly judge as barbaric the idea of using human corpses as trophies.

Osama Bin LadenIn fighting terrorists, we endeavor to never become like them. Traditional conservatives like Douthat -- having attuned themselves to the corruptibility of all humans -- are issuing the right warnings. Another strain of conservatism, represented by Steyn, is so fearful of the possibility that Islamist fundamentalists might win that when they think of severed heads and skull trophies, or waterboarding, civilian casualties, and the indefinite detention of innocents, they focus entirely on what these acts might do to the enemy, forgetting that they have consequences for us too.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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