The article by Nicholas Schmidle in the New Yorker—“Getting Bin Laden”—seems to be the most detailed account yet published on the mission to kill the al-Qaeda leader. Although it provides background and a postscript, it focuses largely on the SEAL mission itself. Of-course any piece like this is only as good as its sources, and we don’t really know who Schmidle’s sources are, but the story comes across very credibly, to this reader at least, and I definitely recommend reading it in full. It should fill any American’s heart with awe at the caliber of those wearing the uniform and putting themselves on the line every day. As the article makes clear, the mission that night was in some ways not unusual at all; these kinds of dangerous and daring attacks on Taliban and al-Qaeda targets are executed on a regular basis. The unusual things in this case were (1) venturing so far within Pakistan and (2) the name of the primary target. In some ways, as scary and nerve-wracking as it is even to read the account months later, this mission was significantly easier than the average one, in that Osama bin Laden’s compound was not well-defended. Of-course it’s easy to know that after the fact, aware as we are now that there were no booby-traps or suicide vests awaiting the SEALs. They couldn’t know those things that night.
Reading about bin Laden’s final moments again made me wonder something which I’m sure many people wonder, not least those who lost loved ones on September 11th, 2001: what was going through his mind as he realized that he was about to die? He had some time to become aware of his situation. The account states that he saw the SEALs approaching (either from a balcony or by peeking around his door) and of-course he had heard the gunfire and small explosions as they made their way into the building. He did not grab a weapon. His wives stood in front of him. As they were pulled away by one member of the SEAL team, he had one final moment of looking his fate in the eye.
Did he have fear, even blind terror? Did he wish to be taken alive?
Did he have sharp and painful regrets about his failure to hide successfully, realizing not only that he would now die, but that all his computer data would be taken, compromising his al-Qaeda cohorts and his “life’s work?”
Did he feel not like the glorious martyr he was supposed to be but instead like a total failure and a miserable loser?
There is no doubt that he deserved to feel the worst of all of those feelings, and to die in shame, filled with fright and with dread.
However, as a Christian, there has to be room for at least one more question: Did he in some indefinable final moment, even after the fatal bullets had been fired, experience true regret for the evil he had done in his life? Faced with the extinguishing of his life, did he realize how he had foolishly dedicated it to emptiness, to lies, and to death itself? Was he sorry for this? And does God take account of such a final, inner confession?
It is difficult to conceive of someone like Osama bin Laden having a humble and contrite heart even in such a moment of truth. In any case he has taken the secret with him to his deep-sea grave, and the world is thankfully spared what we must presume would have been only further evil at his hands. Yet, we all face that moment of truth, mostly in less dramatic ways, and with (generally) more mundane sins burdening our souls. A sliver of hope that bin Laden was actually sorry and might actually have been gifted with some measure of forgiveness is a natural outgrowth of the same kind of hope for the rest of us. It is, I suppose, the “judge not lest ye be judged” aspect of things.
That said, may God above all bless and protect the Navy SEALs and all who fight in the U.S. armed forces. Their work may be violent, but it is not violence in the cause of death—as is that of bin Laden’s al-Qaeda and related fanatics—but in the cause of freedom and of life. And for that, this generation of our all-volunteer military, fighting on so many different fronts, has earned the respect and gratitude of the nation forever.