Apparently the US got him at last — he was shot dead in a gun battle in Pakistan. Let us rejoice at this, for it means that the world is a better place today.
He inherited huge amounts of money, and was evidently a man of much ability. He used that money and ability to attempt to turn the world into a theocratic Islamic state, against the wishes of almost everyone living in it. His method was violence and terror, and he was successful at it. Not merely did he himself organise the murder of thousands whom he never met, in order to further his aims. He also succeeded in creating an upsurge in Moslem violence against non-Moslems around the world. For one man, not a head of state, to cause so many deaths is remarkable. In the process he made it necessary and legitimate for free countries to introduce the kind of surveillance previously only known in unfree states, and it is likely that all of us are less free in consequence.
Some feel that it is wrong to rejoice at the death of any man, however bad. There is something in this. It may be a little undignified, perhaps. But there is a risk that in so doing we will minimise the evil that he chose to do. There is a risk that we seem to palter with the categories of good and evil.
Long ago I read some words of J. A. Froude on this subject in the pages of Augustine Birrell. Let us have a look at them now. In The Divorce of Catherine of Aragon he wrote:
To Cæsar or Napoleon it matters nothing what judgment the world passes upon their conduct. It is of more importance for the ethical value of history that acts which as they are related appear wicked should be duly condemned, that acts which are represented as having advanced the welfare of mankind should be duly honoured, than that the real character of individuals should be correctly appreciated.
To appreciate any single man with complete accuracy is impossible. To appreciate him even proximately is extremely difficult. Rulers of kingdoms may have public reasons for what they do, which at the time may be understood or allowed for. Times change, and new interests rise. The circumstances no longer exist which would explain their conduct. The student looks therefore for an explanation in elements which he thinks he understands — in pride, ambition, fear, avarice, jealousy, or sensuality; and, settling the question thus to his own satisfaction, resents or ridicules attempts to look for other motives.
So long as his moral judgment is generally correct, he inflicts no injury, and he suffers none. Cruelty and lust are proper objects of abhorrence; he learns to detest them in studying the Tiberius of Tacitus, though the character described by the great Roman historian may have been a mere creation of the hatred of the old Roman aristocracy. The manifesto of the Prince of Orange was a libel against Philip the Second; but the Philip of Protestant tradition is an embodiment of the persecuting spirit of Catholic Europe which it would be now useless to disturb.
The tendency of history is to fall into wholesome moral lines whether they be accurate or not, and to interfere with harmless illusions may cause greater errors than it aspires to cure. Crowned offenders are arraigned at the tribunal of history for the crimes which they are alleged to have committed.
It may be sometimes shown that the crimes were not crimes at all, that the sufferers had deserved their fate, that the severities were useful and essential for some great and valuable purpose. But the reader sees in the apology for acts which he had regarded as tyrannical a defence of tyranny itself. Preoccupied with the received interpretation, he finds deeds excused which he had learnt to execrate; and in learning something which, even if true, is of no real moment to him, he suffers in the maiming of his perceptions of the difference between right and wrong.