Has the U.S. ever announced an assassination like this before?

May 2, 2011

Like most Americans, I watched President Obama’s speech about the death of Osama bin Laden with a certain awe. Obama was unquestionably presidential: solemn but unapologetic; confident but never boastful; straightforward in his message but not overly detailed; patriotic but restrained.

And yet as I watched I asked aloud: When was the last time, if ever, that an American president has come forth to announce the assassination of an individual?

Sure, there have been presidential conferences to disclose arrests, to explain invasions in which countless people die, to tell of bombings in foreign lands.

But can anyone remember a time when the president has stepped up to personally tell the nation about a single kill?

I don’t question bin Laden’s guilt, nor do I doubt for a moment that this president carried this out for reasons he believes are moral and just. Whatever political gain this may have – and it will, substantial – the risks involved in the scenario were much too great to have entered into it for any such benefit.

Nor am I in a position to offer the president an alternative scenario, a way this might have gone that’s different or better had a decision been made to keep Bin Laden alive. I may be against killing, but I’m realistic enough to understand its widespread view as a necessity, and I’m too much of a fighter and survivor myself to embrace absolute pacifism.

So I am conflicted, watching our president, with his confident authority, telling us he has had someone, however despicable and evil, killed in our name.

Perhaps my feelings are such because Obama’s announcement provoked such Super Bowl style rowdiness outside the White House and throughout the country that no one even thought to discourage. Those faces – most too young to have fully understood 9/11 – still struck me as too fresh and new to understand what it means for a man to die, even this one.

I tried really hard to hear President Obama: “… we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history, whether it’s the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens …”

But I couldn’t help but wonder if much of the rest of the world heard that message a little more succinctly: “… we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history.”

And I wonder too if the combination of those words and that deed didn’t bring a little shudder to people away from our borders, where our might is a wondrous but also a fearsome thing.

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