An Unmourned Death, An Unspeakable Cause

Death in war is rarely even dramatic in its circumstances. The sudden blast, here not there; lingering pain, too short to be taken home, but long enough to be agony. What nobility there is comes from the cause, the choice that the soldier has made.

Few causes have been worse than that of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Al Qaeda’s commander in Iraq. His goal was a society of command and control; his means were murder and chaos. He did not lead from the front. He never contemplated strapping on the martyr’s bomb belt himself, or even engaging in a firefight. The famous video outtake of him having to be instructed in the use of the weapon he heroically posed with may have embarrassed him, but it accurately reflected his own program and vision of himself. The pudgy mastermind was not made to fight, even to murder; he intended to command, once the Americans and ordinary Iraqis were out of the way. But they did not get out of his way, and death came for the arch-bomber.

How appropriate that the lingerie of his girlfriend was found in his safe house. He did not plan on sampling the 72 virgins any time soon; meanwhile, he would make do with earthly rewards. One hopes she was not harmed. We have no quarrel with Eva Braun.

Everyone who criticizes George W. Bush for not having caught or killed Osama bin Laden is now saying it doesn’t matter that Mr. bin Laden’s commander in Iraq has been killed, but let us take a sober view. At a minimum, Zarqawi’s death accomplishes three things. It disarranges the enemy’s command structure, at least temporarily. It’s not like Al Qaeda has a constitution, which lines up the Vice President, the Speaker of the House and the president pro tem of the Senate. Al Qaeda is more like The Sopranos: Who takes over if Tony gets whacked?

Zarqawi had lieutenants, as any commander has, but, lacking legitimacy, they must base their claims to lead on charisma, trust and knowledge, and how much of these qualities has Killer No. 2 had a chance to accumulate? Since we know that Zarqawi was pinpointed using tips from multiple sources within his own ranks, the issue of trust looms large for the survivors. Could there be informants in Al Qaeda’s college of cardinals? Perhaps a leader-in-waiting might decide to make a separate peace, not wanting a bomb to be guided to his head.

Zarqawi’s passing will depress the enemy generally. Leaders inspire, not only because of their talents, but simply because they embody and incarnate. Think of the loss of morale the Confederacy suffered when Stonewall Jackson rode across the river and under the trees. The rebels fought on, bravely, but they had lost a symbol, as well as a genius. Think of the even greater loss of morale the Union suffered when Lincoln was murdered. We hear a lot about the value of martyrdom in Middle Eastern cultures, and certainly it is a potent force. But someone has to lead the deluded, redundant young men on their death march. That is why Arafat, Khomeini, bin Laden et al. take such good care of themselves, apart from enlightened self-interest.

Zarqawi’s crossing the bar finally will please the ordinary Iraqis he has been slaughtering without mercy. As the U.S. Army and even the Iraqi Army became more difficult enemies for him to deal with, he turned to the time-tested targets of terror: bus riders, shoppers, civil servants. Iraqis spent the years of Saddam’s rule living their daily lives with a back-of-the-mind fear that they might say the wrong thing, or that their daughters might attract the roving eyes of his sons (if they were Kurds, Shiites or Marsh Arabs, of course, their fears were more immediate and concrete). Now the terrorist allies that Saddam patronized when he was in power administer the fear spastically. The criminal in his many palaces has been replaced by mere criminals. Zarqawi’s comeuppance is sweet justice, like the death of a neighborhood drug lord.

The blessing will pour into the sand, however, unless the strategic situation in Iraq allows the creation of a stable, representative and potent government. Each quality sustains the other two. Stability allows people to choose leaders, instead of grabbing desperately for whatever they can. Leaders can make decisions and act. Effective action creates more stability. The grass-grow tempo of Iraqi politics (and perhaps of Arab politics), where it exists, baffles the American mind. While the house is burning about their ears, pols sip tea and haggle for advantage.

Well, there are features of American politics that astonish the world: cant (can they really mean this stuff?); idealism (they do mean this stuff). Bucking recent history and deadly obstacles, Iraqis have marched to the polls and elected, first an interim, then an actual government. The new prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, has now completed his administration and vows to set his burning house in order. He has a lot to do. Shiite extremists, more or less stooges of Iran, have infiltrated the police, especially in Basra (the heroic local journalist Steven Vincent reported the early stages of this process before he was murdered). Sunni Arabs who may be terrorists only incidentally—they do not dream, with bin Laden and Zarqawi, of a restored caliphate, only of an Iraq which they can rule—are being integrated into the political process, in which they can get something more solid, if smaller, than their dreams. But the wooing drags.

There is another battlefield, as important as Iraq. Zarqawi understood it as well as the country he hoped to destroy and rule. That is the American mind. Zarqawi put bombs in Iraqi streets. He put pictures of bombs on American TV. He influenced those Americans who were his admirers. Michael Moore compared the terrorists in Iraq to the minutemen of the American Revolution. He must be mourning his George Washington now. More important, Zarqawi influenced the timid. In the current New Yorker, Philip Gourevitch writes eloquently about the world’s fecklessness in the face of genocide, which he documented in Rwanda. For months, The New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof has appealed for relief for Darfur.

These are not timid men; they are indefatigable in bringing wrongs to our attention. But who can doubt that if the United States took action—as it would have to do, the U.N. being worthless—the first time we killed anyone or any one of us were killed, Maureen Dowd would write a mad-housewife column, R.J. Apple would rumble about quagmire, and the whole hand-wringing ballet would begin again?

It’s not that 40 percent of us don’t want to do anything. It’s that 40 percent of us don’t want to do anything long or hard.