The Supreme Morale Booster

The spontaneous celebrations after bin Laden's death are reminiscent of a certain ancient superpower in whose image the United States was built.

Shimon Bar Giora was one of the leaders of the failed Jewish revolt against the Romans in the 1st century C.E.; he gained control of Jerusalem in the last year of the struggle and kept on fighting even after the walls fell and the Temple was destroyed. When he lay down his arms and was captured trying to escape from the ruined city, he was taken to Tiberias as a prisoner and brought in fetters before Titus, the Roman commander.

Titus ordered that Bar Giora be kept alive and guarded because he was saving him for the day of victory to celebrate the triumph in Rome, according to Yosef ben Matityahu (Flavius Josephus ), Bar Giora's great enemy, who had gone over to the Romans and survived to write the war's history.

Osama bin Laden - Times Square - May 2011

The hundreds of Jewish captives chosen to take part in the victory procession, who were selected for their strength and good looks, were sent to Rome by ship. When the great day came they were displayed in a big parade in Rome, with accoutrements of the Temple, the seven-branched candelabrum and the Torah scroll. At the end of the procession, in a chariot, rode the Emperor Vespasian and his victorious son Titus, and Titus' younger brother Domitian on a horse. And then the procession reached the Temple of Jupiter, on the Capitoline Hill.

The Romans had an ancient custom, relates Josephus, of waiting there until a crier proclaimed the death of the enemy army's commander. After Bar Giora walked in the procession with the other captives, a noose was tied around his neck, and he was beaten as the audience looked on and led him to the execution site above the marketplace.

When the news of his death arrived, it was received with universal acclaim, and the sacrifices were begun, writes Josephus. The emperor and his sons went back to the palace. Some they entertained at the imperial table; for all the rest sumptuous banquets had been prepared at home. All day long the City of Rome celebrated the triumphant issue of the campaign against her enemies.

Not exactly as the Romans do

In Washington they didn't hold a triumphal procession as in ancient Rome, and U.S. President Barack Obama contented himself with a stern-faced speech on television. But the spontaneous celebrations and the enthusiastic public-opinion polls were reminiscent of the ancient superpower in whose image the United States was built.

Obama explained his refusal to publish a photo of the dead bin Laden by saying, "We don't trot out this stuff as trophies." But most Americans, according to a CNN survey, do indeed want to see the crushed body of the enemy army's commander in chief. The picture might yet leak if Obama loses points in the public-opinion polls.

The ancient command "Bring me his head" is still in the glossary of every military commander and intelligence chief. Victory in war is not complete if the symbol of the enemy is still alive, even in hiding. The day before the killing of bin Laden, NATO forces in Libya failed in their attempt to kill Muammar Gadhafi in a bombing attack. The Libyans claimed that in the attack, Gadhafi's youngest son and three of his grandchildren were killed. NATO refused to say from which country the bombers came.

In the developing world there are no such dilemmas. When the government of Sri Lanka put down the Tamil Tigers' rebellion two years ago, after a generation of fighting and a huge number of dead, the army's commanders showed off to visitors souvenirs they had taken from the body of the Tigers' leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. There too, as in the elimination of bin Laden, the government claimed that the enemy had tried to resist and was killed in battle, not just mowed down from up close.

In Israeli culture, killing enemy leaders is perceived as an essential means in the struggle against the Palestinian organizations and Hezbollah. It's enough to recall the obsessive talk about the deportation or assassination of Yasser Arafat, who was confined to the Muqata in Ramallah during the second intifada, and the fog surrounding the mysterious illness that caused his death.

Assassinations of wanted terrorists - the "engineer" Yahya Ayyash from Hamas, the "Hezbollah defense minister" Imad Mughniyeh and Hamas heads Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi - boosted Israeli morale from its depths after devastating terror attacks or failed wars, like the Second Lebanon War. The debate in Israel touches on the fear of revenge attacks in the wake of assassinations or the indictment in Europe of the officers and politicians who ordered the killings, not the fact that symbols of the enemy have been eliminated.

In America, the killing of enemy leaders and commanders is bound by moral and legal constraints. In the 1970s there was even a presidential order prohibiting U.S. intelligence from carrying out such actions. But this exception was abandoned after the attack on the United States in September 2001. Since then we have seen the corpses of Saddam Hussein's sons Uday and Qusay, and their captured father undergoing the humiliating examination of his hair and teeth, and later his execution. Now comes the killing of bin Laden and the failed attempt to kill Gadhafi.

The hypocrisy is evident in the claim that the attack on Tripoli was not an assassination attempt but something else. According to the official version, Gadhafi's residence was bombed in order to damage his command and control system, not to assassinate him or to kill members of his family with the aim of undermining his will to fight. In bin Laden's case, the pretense was dropped, and the killers were depicted as heroes.

The enemy's leaders symbolize the struggle, and their killing is of psychological value in the humiliation of the vanquished and the raising of the victors' morale. A person who sends others to kill must share the risk with them and not be exempt just because he is hiding in a cave or sitting behind a desk giving orders.

There is a controversy about the benefit of killing leaders. The targeted assassinations of Yassin and Rantisi did not topple the Hamas movement, which has only strengthened and is now headed by Khaled Meshal, who was rescued from an attempt on his life. Che Guevara was killed in Bolivia, but today his picture hangs in many homes and is printed on many T-shirts. More importantly, his anti-American message enjoys tremendous popularity in Latin America.

When ideologies disappear

About 60 years after the Jewish revolt was put down, the Temple destroyed and Bar Giora executed, a new revolt broke out in Judea headed by Shimon Bar Kosiba (Bar Kokhba ). Again the Romans had to muster a large army and pursue the rebels to their deaths in their forts and secret caves. Bar Kokhba, as far as is known, was killed in battle and not brought to the victory procession in Rome. The suppression of the second revolt was far more brutal.

The best-known political killing during the Roman rule of Judea was of course Jesus, whose crucifixion did not wipe out his philosophy. His successors spread his ideas, which became the greatest marketing success in human history.

Ideologies disappear only when they are perceived as failures, like Soviet communism, or when a new idea conquers the masses, like Christianity, which took over from pagan religions. If this is so, what's the point in killing leaders?

The answer lies in the timetable. Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator who sentenced Jesus and ordered his execution by crucifixion, took no interest in whether hundreds of years later a Christian religion would arise and take control of Rome. His role was to maintain quiet in a remote province, and he did his duty in accordance with the codes prevailing at the time.

When the Allies wanted to wipe out the Nazis' ideology, they didn't content themselves with the death of Adolf Hitler, they destroyed Germany in bombings and imposed a military occupation. To this day the U.S. Army still has a presence in Germany. In a similar spirit, the Americans dealt with Japan, by leaving the emperor alive but executing the generals. In the meantime, German Nazism and Japanese imperialism have not revived.

The killing of bin Laden will not make radical Islam disappear or end its struggle against America and its allies. His successors will see him as a shahid - a martyr - and a guide, as Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said this week. The Americans will end the celebration and go back to looking after their business, at least until a new Satan appears. This is the nature of us humans. To appear just and good, we need an evildoer. Gadhafi - watch out.