“Ladies and gentlemen, we got him.”—Paul Bremer
First, let’s just be happy. Let’s feel a burst of joy.
Let’s not be boring people who Consider the Implications. Let’s not talk about the domestic political impact. For just a day let’s feel the pleasure history just handed us.
* * *
All morning the words of an old song of the old America have been running through my head. From “My Fair Lady,” from the age when Americans whistled Broadway show tunes on the street. Rex Harrison (a bow today to our valiant allies, the English) jauntily crows over Eliza Doolittle’s first triumph.
- “Pickering Tonight, old man, you did it!
You did it! You did it! You said that you would do it;
And indeed you did. I thought that you would rue it;
I doubted you’d do it. But now I must admit it
That succeed you did. You should get a medal
Or be even made a knight.”
As far as I’m concerned he could be singing this to American troops, and the American administration, and America’s allies, and the Iraqis who suffered through so much to get to this moment.
This is a great day in modern history. A terrible man whose existence had been for decades actively harmful of humanity was forcibly removed from power, run to ground, and has been captured living in a hole. As I write, the television is showing videotape of his hair being checked for lice and his mouth being inspected with a pencil light for signs of disease. The white plastic pinpoint light illuminates his throat and gums. It looks like the mouth of hell. He has been utterly defeated and quelled. He can’t kill anybody now. He cannot gas women and children with chemicals that kill them; he cannot personally torture dissidents, or imprison them. He cannot tell his soldiers to throw opponents off the tops of buildings. He can’t impose his sickness and sadism on the world. The children of Baghdad dance in the streets. A nightmare is over.
America did this. American troops did this. The American people, by supporting those troops and this effort, did it. And a particular group of soldiers led by a particular U.S. army officer did it. As Dana Priest of the Washington Post has just reported on NBC, he is a big, tall, bearlike guy who loves his job and whose attitude toward his mission was, apparently, a natural and constitutional optimism. We don’t yet know his name, but he’ll be famous by tomorrow morning.
* * *
What do we learn? Well, as Samuel Johnson said, “Man needs more to be reminded than instructed,” so what are we reminded of through the happy ending of this story?
That human agency works and is an active force in history. You don’t have to sit back and accept; you don’t have to continue to turn a blind eye; you don’t have to sit and do nothing, because all action involves choice and all choice invites repercussion. You can move forward. You can take action. You can go in and remove a threat to the world. You can make the world safer. You can help people. Just because they live in Iraq and we don’t bump into them every day doesn’t mean they don’t merit assistance and even sacrifice.
We are reminded, all of us, that patience is necessary, that nothing big can be accomplished without it. America and Iraq searched day and night for Saddam Hussein for eight months. And for some time they searched for a man half of them thought had already been obliterated in the early days of the war. But they didn’t know and they had to find him if he was alive. They had to find him even if he was surrounded by a thousand troops and explosives. So there was their patience, and there was the patience of Washington: political patience. If he’s there, we will find him. The administration’s foes had attempted to embarrass them for eight months. The administration simply said: If he’s there, we will find him; we won’t give up until we do. Good for them for not spinning it but simply having faith in the troops and being patient.
And we are reminded that when you do what is right, you can be rewarded. When you summon the guts to take a controversial stand, and accept the price of that stand, and the price comes in every day, you can win. And that victory can make things better.
* * *
Now Iraq’s Baathist movement is over; its chief is humiliated, revealed as a coward, caught and ridiculous. Now the people of Iraq will be able to testify in court about what he did, in front of his face. Now we all may find out a great deal more about what exactly Saddam did with the weapons of mass destruction we know he had in the past, for he used them on the Kurds and against Iran in the old war. Where did those weapons go? Where are they now? What about Saddam’s relations with al Qaeda? What papers will we find now, what evidence? And what will he say in an attempt to save his skin?
Next stop, Osama. May we find him in a hole. May we search his beard for lice and his gums for disease. May we see in the reflection of the light the mouth of hell, and may we close it for him tight.
* * *
All the journalists and politicians, they are always embarrassed to feel joy when something like this happens. They fear it will show a lack of understanding that history is a heavy and ponderous thing, a big tragedy machine, and all progress is illusory. Celebrating a military triumph—and this was among other things a military triumph—seems to them tantamount to Kiplingism, quaintly ignorant and unhelpfully nationalistic. That’s why everyone on TV today is furrowing his brow. They know joy is the wrong thing to be feeling. It’s unsophisticated.
But normal people don’t have to be sophisticated. They can be normal. And happy. And say what normal Americans say when something great in history happens. “Thanks, God. Thanks a lot.”