Taunting The Imagination
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
The story of the last hours, the last days of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi taunts the imagination at different levels. There is – not to be forgotten – the purely human story. Zarqawi was perhaps the most conspicuous killer-sadist since Reinhard Heydrich. When that Nazi overseer was assassinated, the Germans undertook in reprisal to give the world something of a Disney-sized genocidal exhibit, setting out to kill every last one of the inhabitants of the little town, Lidice, where the assassin had lived. Zarqawi was much taken with the long reach of brilliantly exhibited terrorism. He himself effected the beheading of two captives, done carefully for the cameras, intending maximum exposure.
He was attracted to terrorism, selecting as one target the giving of candy bars by American troops to Iraqi children. From such occasions his suicide bombers managed 42 dead, 35 of them children. But Zarqawi did not want to end his life on the firing line. In stressing the need for security in his area of operations, he called to the attention of an aide the relative ease with which bin Laden could effect his own security, shielded by mountains and crevasses and caves, very different from the little clusters of palm trees that sheltered Zarqawi, but finally gave him up to the mosaic of intelligence sources used by our military.
Curiosity attaches also to the mission of Zarqawi. He was not schooled in his faith, but he drank deeply of such knowledge as he had, and it overpowered all other perspectives. He developed skills of the kind that play on the mythogenic imagination. He seemed to enjoy his practiced deceptions, traveling about often as a woman, more than once all but evaporating from an encirclement in which he was thought finally vulnerable. Generations of westerners were brought up on the legendary skills of Robin Hood in outwitting his would-be captors. As much will surely be done for Zarqawi.
My own curiosity was most aroused by the events of the last day. The bare outline is pretty clear. The sources we disposed of – HUMINT (human intelligence), high-tech reconnaissance and electronic intercepts – absolutely told us that he, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was in the small house whose coordinates we knew.
We had armed men within range of the target house. A decision had to be made. It is always thought preferable to take a wanted man prisoner on the assumption that much critical information can be extracted from him. Twenty-four hours after the decision was made to go for the kill, military spokesmen made persuasive points. One of them was that, with night descending, the possibility of yet one more escape was conclusively the darkest cloud on the horizon. A second point was that to capture Zarqawi alive would require a firefight with his bodyguards. Even if they were easily overwhelmed, still there would be American dead. Why sacrifice more American lives?
So the execution orders were given to fighter jets, two of them up there within striking distance. But one of them was busy with the pre-eminent need for marsupial refueling, so both 500-pound bombs came down from the second plane.
It was instantly established that the target had been hit by the first bomb, but the naval commander told the pilot – whose instruments now had the GPS coordinates, supplanting the laser signals that guided the first bomb – to go with a second hit.
It was a matter of minutes before our Delta Force was there to verify that the objective was accomplished. The drama produced: Zarqawi alive.
Three plenary accounts of what then happened, taken from Time and Newsweek and The New York Times, advise us that Zarqawi was wounded but on a stretcher. He was speaking, presumably to whoever it was who had got the stretcher for him, but then – suddenly – he is dead. Of the wounds suffered from the bombing.
We are told by reporters on the scene or with ready access to it that different men, but men with authority, began now to speak about the need to protect the delicate and valuable sources that had combined to give us the coordinates of the master killer.
Was there somebody in the act there who decided that Zarqawi was much better, there and then, definitely dead, than headed for one of those chambers where Milosevic practiced his legal education, only finally dying of something not related to a noose or a guillotine? In such a chamber Saddam Hussein seems intent on living, perhaps longer than President Bush will remain in office.
How delicately do you need to treat a killer responsible for thousands of deaths, hunted down for three years by a special posse, and finally ordered killed by whoever gave those instructions to the pilot on just where to drop the two bombs?