When I was a kid (I don't recall what year) my class was visited by a retired CIA agent. I think he had written a book or something. He was regaling us with stories of failed assassination attempts against Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. Maybe I was a lazy student, but I still know precious little about Castro and all his crimes against America; from what I can tell, our beef with him is that (a) he aligned himself with the Soviet Union and (b) he oversees a country uncomfortably close to our national border. In any case, it stimulated my nascent imagination to hear such tales of international intrigue; I remember him telling us that the CIA, knowing of Castro's fondness for conch shells, packed a particularly irresistible shell full of explosives and planted it near where Castro liked to go swimming. No dice: forty-some years later Castro is still swimming.
Failed assassination attempts aside, I find it a little disconcerting that twice in the past decade the United States has made headlines, called press conferences, interrupted broadcasts to celebrate bringing two world leaders to justice.
* Saddam Hussein, fished out of a spider hole in Iraq by American troops and later publicly executed by his own people.
* Osama Bin Laden, descended upon and shot dead in a mansion outside Islamabad, supposedly (it's still early, and details are still sketchy) buried at sea by the U.S. government.
Both were legitimately considered enemies of the state: Hussein, among other things, had attempted to assassinate former president George H. W. Bush; Bin Laden had sponsored the attacks on September 11, 2001, among many other campaigns against the United States. The death of each was a strong message to the world: Don't mess with US.
These executions, however, seem to be aberrations of history. Like Castro, any attempts on the lives of other enemies of state were kept under wraps, and most of the most notorious lived long and prospered despite our declared enmity. Consider some other public enemies, number one:
* The Ayatollah Khomeini, spiritual leader of Iran who approved a 400+ day hostage crisis against the American embassy, died a decade later of natural causes.
* Ho Chi Minh, leader of North Vietnam during its war with the United States, died of heart failure.
* Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union and sworn enemy of the United States, died of a cerebral hemorrhage (although it's sometimes claimed that a member of his inner circle poisoned him).
* Adolph Hitler, genocidal maniac who led the whole world into war, died by suicide in the face of advancing Russian armies.
* Emperor Hirohito, who authorized the second-most devastating attack on U.S. soil (Pearl Harbor), died decades later of pancreatic cancer.
* Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, which threatened to destroy the integrity of the United States and launched still the bloodiest war in American history, died of natural causes nearly twenty-five years after his capture by Northern troops.
I'm no fan of Osama Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein or anyone who declares jihad or war or any other state of violence against my country. I also don't pretend to know the inner workings of our government, particularly its military or foreign policy protocols. I believe in justice and long for a day when justice will be embraced worldwide. But it's worth noting, at least briefly, that Bin Laden and Hussein are exceptions to the rule in the long history of American world relations. By and large, regarding its international enemies, the U.S. government has let nature take its course.
In the meantime, the death of anyone at the hands of anyone else gives me pause. So while today the United States, indeed the world, celebrates the conclusion of the manhunt for Osama Bin Laden, may we also shudder at the power that we hold, and at the vulnerability we still face. And may we be utterly circumspect about both.