For two and a half years President Barack Obama hunted the “monster” Osama bin Laden, and last year he had bin Laden killed. This story has many parallels to the towering Sumerian epic Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh, who was the ruler of the city-state of Uruk, sought to gain eternal fame by killing the monster Humbaba. After defeating the monster, Gilgamesh ignored its pleas for mercy and proceeded to slay the helpless monster. That act of cruelty angered Heaven, which took out its vengeance on Gilgamesh. In the bin Laden tale an unarmed monster, who perhaps could have been captured, may likewise have been slain out of vengeance.
The Gilgamesh epic is the story of a ruler who was shown the honorable path, but ignored it and suffered the consequences.
Last week President Obama made an unannounced night visit to Kabul. The visit was an embarrassing spectacle. The President of the most powerful country in the world, protected by 90,000 of his own soldiers, had to slip into Afghanistan out of fear of the “defeated” al-Qaeda and the Taliban. President Obama then addressed the press and announced that the war has been a success and will be over in 2014. First of all no one told the Taliban that the war will end in 18 months, and Second, this did not have any of the appearances of victory. A victory occurs when parties sign a surrender agreement aboard a mighty battleship in the bright sunlight of Tokyo Harbor.
Victory celebrations take place in the daylight, not under a cloak of darkness.
President Obama also used the occasion of the one-year anniversary of bin Laden’s death to congratulate himself for ordering the killing. As Senator John McCain later said, true heroes do not praise themselves (and they do not celebrate anyone’s death).
President Obama might have been able to make a dramatic speech if he had flown to Khost and made his address at one of the deserted al-Qaeda camps from where the September 11th attacks were actually planned and launched. He could have said, “This is where the attacks were launched from and these camps are no more.” Such a trip into Khost Province would have been dramatic, but alas, 90,000 troops are not enough to ensure the President’s safety.
While almost all Americans support the SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden, historians will write the final judgment on this incident because they will likely have all the facts. It is amazing that the American people only have a carefully sanitized version of this most crucial event. Historians will have to grapple with the following questions:
1. Osama bin Laden seemed old, sick and tired. Was he essentially retired and no longer a threat to the U.S.?
2. Did the SEALs kill an unarmed man who was no danger to them?
3. Did the SEALs have the option to capture bin Laden, or was this strictly a kill mission for revenge?
4. Why was bin Laden “finished off” with a shot to the head as he lay on the ground?
5. Why was the bin Laden autopsy report not released?
6. Why was bin Laden buried secretly at sea and was that motivated by fear or common sense?
7. How much money did it cost to track and kill one man over a ten-year period and should those resources have been better used targeting the successors to al-Qaeda? and,
8. Finally, are any benefits resulting from the death of the monster worth the damage that it caused to U.S./Pakistani relations and to the Afghan war effort?
These are all questions that the American news media is not currently prepared to ask.
Historians may eventually conclude that the bin Laden killing was gratuitous, or more motivated by domestic politics than necessity, or perhaps even a war crime by President Obama. If so that may tarnish the efforts of the brave troops involved and may result in actual sympathy for the dead al-Qaeda leader, much as Saddam Hussein’s execution was turned into a sordid spectacle and Muammar Qaddafi’s death at the hands of a savage mob may result in sympathy in the history books for him.
Actions taken out of fear and for revenge usually backfire and can generate sympathy for the victim, even if that victim is a brutal killer.
This is a lesson that no one ever seems to learn.
Historians may also be mindful of parallels in history. The most famous fictional book in the region is the Sumerian Gilgamesh epic, which is the world’s first true novel. In the story Gilgamesh, the ruler of Uruk, and his friend Enkidu, seeking eternal fame, go to war against what Gilgamesh regards as the evil monster Humbaba (even though Humbaba‘s crime is that he is the world’s first environmentalist. Humbaba had been tasked by the god Enlil to be the guardian of the sacred Cedar Forest, with instructions to terrify anyone who entered it.) Gilgamesh and Enkidu defeat the hideous looking Humbaba but despite his pleas for mercy, they slay him. The gods, angry at such a murder, curse Gilgamesh and Enkidu and then take Enkidu’s life as the penalty. This devastates Gilgamesh who then abandons his kingdom to wander the planet seeking salvation, which he never finds.
Seven thousand years ago the world’s first civilization decided that unnecessary killings are an offense against Heaven. It was a stunning philosophical achievement for a “primitive” civilization.
Perhaps someday the U.S. Government will advance to that same level of Sumerian wisdom.
The hope for President Obama is that Heaven is not as it is depicted in the Gilgamesh epic and that the one true God will not view bin Laden’s killing and President Obama’s continuing celebrations of it, as actions for which a response is merited.