DI: Did you ever seriously consider going after bin Laden?
Bruce: Honestly? New York is in my backyard. I was surprised, frankly, when they got hit and we didn’t back in ’01. Like every other American, I wanted to find him. Unlike most Americans, there was a fantasy in my head that I actually could.
DI: Well, you are the goddamned Batman. I mean, if you don’t have the skills and resources to track down a man like that, who would?
B: But I don’t. I’ve had some training in manhunting. And I had enough wealth. But there are other kinds of resources. The annual intelligence budget for the US is about $50 billion dollars. But beyond their superior monetary resources, which admittedly are spread in a lot of directions, not all thrown at bin Laden, they have thousands upon thousands of people working every day to make contacts, and build networks. Now I’m very proud of the people I’ve worked with in Gotham, and a lot of them have placed themselves in far greater peril than I ever did, to stop criminals. But it took me a third of a lifetime to build that coalition. Starting from scratch to hunt bin Laden across Asia would have taken more lifetimes than I had left, and I knew that- at least after a few moments of contemplation.
DI: Fair enough. But as someone who’s spoken out against the death penalty, and even refuses to use lethal apprehension tech, how do you feel about his death, particularly the way it’s being celebrated in the US and other places? Do you think it has any parallels to the public response in the Middle East to the 9/11 attacks?
B: I think, for the most part, the reaction has been more restrained. For a decade, bin Laden has been the devil. Now the devil’s dead. It’s asking too much for us not to have a visceral reaction to that. But the difference is, people are happy to not have that sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, they aren’t happy that a human being is dead- they’re relieved, that a long, tragic nightmare for our country is over. Which is an admittedly naïve thought, but also an infectious one. I’ve felt it. I slept a little better the night I heard the news- I won’t lie.
As to the lethality of his apprehension, my methods were a choice, a personal one. Every time I went out, I was choosing to trade optimal stopping power for minimal lethality, and I was risking my life for a principle. It wouldn’t be right to ask, let alone expect, others in the same position to choose the same.
And while we don’t know at this point whether he died according to the rules of engagement, I’m more than inclined to give the soldiers on the ground the benefit of the doubt. Regardless of what television and films tell us, war is hell. When shots are being fired, when your life and the lives of people you care about protecting hang in the balance, you don’t always react the same way you would discussing it over stale coffee. Barring evidence that he was executed after being taken into custody, I’m willing to assume the soldiers acted in good faith.
DI: I’ll admit it, I’ve been kind of surprised at how it played out. I expected, especially after news that he’d been buried at sea, that al Qaeda would claim he hadn’t died, that we were full of crap. A denial would have stolen a feather out of Obama’s cap, and I think given ammunition to conservatives- especially those who see nefarious motives behind any government action.
B: I think for a while al Qaeda benefited from posturing against conservatives. You remember in ’04, when conservatives said that the terrorists wanted liberals to win because they would be soft on terrorism- similar to the usual smear about crime. Well I think in truth it was the opposite: terrorists liked have conservatives as a foil.
DI: You’re saying that the terrorists wanted conservatives to win? That’s… awfully inflammatory.
B: I’m not saying they agreed with their politics- I’m saying I think it helped them achieve their goals. Conservatives are linked with the religious right, and I think al Qaeda benefited from a philosophic war with Christianity. It let make it not about a petty political squabble, but link it back to the Crusades, and a Muslim’s holy duty- I can’t think of a more effective recruitment campaign, frankly. What they didn’t benefit from was an international pissing contest with a Christian cowboy. I think their not denying bin Laden’s death is in part a reversal of this policy, and an acknowledgement that they overplayed their hand.
DI: So you think Bush dealt with the terrorists well?
B: I’m not saying that. I’m saying that his response hurt them. The question that’s important is whether or not the damage we did to them was worth what it’s cost us, in terms of blood, in terms of treasure, in terms of prestige. And no, I obviously don’t think that the ends justify his particular means.
DI: So you don’t think we should ever have been in Afghanistan?
B: No- I’m saying we should have gone into Afghanistan, smashed the Taliban, salted the earth so it could never grow again, decimated any al Qaeda there, and seized bin Laden at Tora Bora. I’m saying the years of dithering, and the distraction of Iraq, were the issue, not the initial decision to join that conflict.
DI: Damn. I was hoping I’d caught you in a contradiction. We journalists live for the kind of stuff. But I was reading a BBC article about this, because it’s always fascinating to me to hear a voice outside of our influence sphere, about the Pakistani reactions to news of bin Laden’s death. And one Taliban fighter said near the end of the article, "Let them rejoice now - soon they will feel fear again."
B: It makes me think- terrorists are a superstitious and cowardly lot. If I were twenty years younger- and healthy- well, that’s wishful thinking, I suppose. But their own religion speaks to justice, and justice will find them. Sooner or later. And bin Laden’s demise is just further proof of that.