This morning I watched the jubilant celebrations of people across the United States as they were buoyed by the news of the death of Osama bin Laden from the muzzle of CIA and Navy SEAL operatives. On one hand I understand this expression of a primal sense of justice/revenge–especially that which is voiced from people who were directly affected by the events of 9/11 (some of the imagery of certain Psalms comes to mind)–, but I have an overriding sense of regret and sadness. While I am glad that bin Laden is dead I have a small sense of what it took to accomplish this. I do not have in mind only the official reports of the dead and injured military personnel, “enemy combatants,” and civilians, in the course of the decade long struggle to find bin Laden “dead or alive,” but, rather, on my mind are the hundreds if not thousands of relatively innocent people who were hurt, wounded, and crushed in the process whose names will never be seen in print.
When I was in college I came to know a former Director of Counterintelligence for the CIA. I don’t know if this relationship was due chance or if it was orchestrated–the CIA has hundreds of “P-sources” (Professor-sources) scattered throughout most major universities that identify potential recruits. In any case, I ended up getting to know him quite well–I was invited over to his house for dinner on many occasions, I met pretty much his entire family from children to in-laws, I took a class on the Cold War from him, he spoke on his perspective on the so-called Just War Theory to a Bible study group that I led, and we had countless hours of conversation from everything from Greek mythology to geopolitical diplomacy and spycraft. He taught me quite a lot about what the CIA really does and how they do it, how to decipher press releases and news reports in order to get a deeper understanding on what “really happened,” ways in which CIA employees struggle through the complicated ethical issues that they inevitably face, and many other things.
Apart from the seemingly glamorous aspects of being a spy, the real job basically entails getting people to betray the things that are most significant in their lives whether those are ideas, people, religions, institutions, or countries. The most preferred way of doing this is working with people who cooperate voluntarily–the intelligence is more reliable and things go much smoother in these instances. However, in many cases spies must coerce, manipulate or force people to do this. While there are a few lines that CIA agents are technically not supposed to cross–including having sex with marks and conducting intensive torture–but agents must do pretty much whatever it takes to accomplish a mission. And, in the cases in which agents themselves are not able to actively engage in actions they get others to do this for them–it is not uncommon in the history of the CIA for agents to arrange for prostitutes or narcotics as rewards or entrapments for sources or for captives to be handed over to other governments for interrogation.
In the wake of gaining the access, intelligence, and opportunities that the CIA and Special Forces act upon, countless lives are shattered, broken, and used. This is seen in the statement that the Director made to me, and which is accepted at the Agency and the government, that when a nation commits itself to a certain military or covert action they also commit themselves to whatever means it takes to accomplish this goal. The broken lives–both physical and psychological–include not only people engaged in nefarious activities but also their families, slightly corrupted persons, innocent bystanders, and the CIA agents themselves. After the dust settles on missions or a career every agent then struggles to take account of what they have done and the damage–both intended and unintended–that they have wrought. Most deal with this guilt, regret and otherwise in constructive ways but many do not.
After learning what it really takes to accomplish things like the death of bin Laden–things that are never reported in the news and that most people celebrating in the streets never contemplate–I knew that this life was not for me. I told the former Director of Counterintelligence that I was applying to study at seminary and he was overjoyed for me and he wrote me a letter of recommendation. I’ve never regretted that decision.
It is for these reasons and several others that instead of joy this morning the words of Proverbs 24:17-18 keep reverberating in my ears:
When your enemy falls, do not rejoice; when he stumbles do not let your heart exult. Lest Yahweh see and (it be) bad in his eyes and he turn his wrath away from him.