The contrast between the morning paper and the news on radio and television could not have been more dramatic Thursday morning. The papers, printed before news of Zarqawi's death, might as well have been draped in black. The Washington Post editorialized about terrorist gains in Somalia, scolding Republicans for rejecting nation-building a dozen years ago.
The New York Times meanwhile predicted that the failure of Iraq's new government to fill the posts of interior and defense ministers (they have since been filled) "would be a serious political crisis in any country . . . it is little short of calamitous for Iraq." On the op-ed page, columnist David Brooks lamented that "the insurgents and the militias -- who kill and maim with abandon -- appear to be wearing away the morale of those who seek a decent, democratic nation. Moreover they are winning precisely because they are savage, and are proud to do things their enemies are ashamed to do."
Brooks may turn out to be right. And Somalia may turn into a bigger problem than it was in 1993 when we ventured there on a purely humanitarian mission to feed the starving. And the Maliki government may yet fall apart.
But what a difference a successful military mission makes. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (it is pleasant to reflect that we will no longer have to hear this repellent name) is dead, along with a few of his lieutenants. In the hours after the "safe house" was demolished, at least 17 raids were carried out in greater Baghdad, reportedly based on information gleaned from computers and other materials captured in the Zarqawi hideout. It was, according to Gen. William B. Caldwell, "a treasure trove." Some reports are suggesting that someone within his circle may have betrayed Zarqawi, which cannot be good for morale among the terrorists.
Zarqawi began life as a street thug but found respectability by adopting Islamic extremism. He was probably a sociopath from the start, and it is a hard truth about 21st-century Islam that it makes spiritual room for those who desire a religious mantle for their homicidal fantasies. Through a combination of unusual brutality and charisma, Zarqawi became leader of the Islamists in Iraq before the U.S. invasion in 2003. It was Zarqawi who personally beheaded Nick Berg. He and others did the same to countless others. As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld noted in his press statement, 17 severed heads had been discovered in Bakuba in the past week, close to the scene of Zarqawi's death. Zarqawi was also behind the bombing of the United Nations building in Iraq, the destruction of the al-Askariyyah mosque in Samarra (which triggered a wave of sectarian violence), the wedding bombing in Amman, Jordan, as well as hundreds of other attacks on innocents that caused the deaths of thousands. Osama bin Laden called him a "prince of al Qaeda."
The price of oil as well as the price of gold fell on news of his death -- evidence that an agent of chaos is gone.
It would obviously be a mistake to pin vast hopes on the death of one monster -- even one so prolific as Zarqawi. On the other hand, this boost has come at a critical moment for Iraq and for the war on Islamic extremism in general. As Gen. Douglas MacArthur reminds us, "In war, there is no substitute for victory."
Before Zarqawi's execution, the vultures were circling. The Council of Europe, the continent's official human rights watchdog group, issued a report declaring it a scandal that Poland and Romania seem to have cooperated with the CIA in jailing terrorists captured in Afghanistan. Translation: It is morally repugnant for the United States to defend itself, and any European who cooperates in the effort is tainted. The American press was gearing up for a gigantic hanky twist over Haditha. And the likes of The New York Times' Bob Herbert were blaming America for the violence in Iraq. "Why should ordinary citizens (good people, religious people, patriots) consider their role in -- and responsibility for -- the thunderous, unending carnage?"
Bob Herbert may not see it this way, but yesterday's attack on Zarqawi was a victory for civilization.