One should not speak ill of the dead, but an exception easily can be made for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He deserves no tears but tears of anguish for those whom he murdered, maimed and otherwise brutalized.
He was a true thug among terrorist leaders, a street gangster who hijacked Islam and turned from petty crime to mass murder, including videotaped beheadings.
Although it remains to be seen just how great the impact of al-Zarqawi's death will be, it is not small. His troops comprised only a small fraction of the more than 60 insurgent groups causing mayhem in Iraq, but he enhanced his influence through fear spread with a publicity-hungry ruthlessness.
Yet, the White House reaction was noticeably subdued, compared to its champagne-cork-popping exuberance following the capture of Saddam Hussein or the killing of his two sons, Uday and Qusay. President Bush announced no turning point in the war, only an "opportunity" for the new Iraqi government to turn the tide.
His caution was well-founded. Past claims of turning points in the war have turned too against us. The president also wisely avoids any more of his early "bring 'em on" and "wanted dead or alive" cowboy talk that he says he now regrets.
And, I hope the Bush administration understands by now the tricky nature of publicity for terrorists in this media age, in which many see publicity as destiny.
For example, the White House had to figure out which al-Zarqawi had died. Was it the cunning and murderous international menace that then-Secretary of State Colin Powell and Vice President Cheney introduced to the world in 2004? Or was it the bumbling thug in gym shoes who apparently couldn't handle an automatic rifle in the captured video that the U.S. military released in April?
Both versions are valid. Al-Zarqawi was a small-timer who hit the big time in February 2003 when Powell made his case for war in Iraq to the United Nations. Powell identified al-Zarqawi incorrectly, we now know, as a major link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden who "helped establish" a terrorist training camp to produce ricin and other poisons near Khurmal in northeastern Iraq.
Vice President Cheney later claimed in his debate with Sen. John Edwards on Oct. 5, 2004, that "Mr. Zarqawi ... set up shop in Baghdad, where he oversaw the poisons facility up at Khurmal (in Iraqi Kurdistan), where the terrorists were developing ricin and other deadly substances to use."
As the world knows by now, no ricin or other weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq. But al-Zarqawi became as famous as bin Laden in world terrorist circles, enhancing his influence and recruitment. If his importance was not created by the U.S., it was inflated, first to validate the alleged Saddam-al-Qaeda link and, second, to put an easy-to-hate non-Iraqi face on Iraq's otherwise faceless and highly complicated insurgency.
"One can only imagine how astonished al-Zarqawi must have been when Colin Powell named him as the crucial link between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's regime," writes author Mary Anne Weaver in a lengthy profile of al-Zarqawi in the latest Atlantic Monthly, now updated on the magazine's Web site. "He was not even officially a part of al-Qaeda, and ever since he had left Afghanistan (from which he fled invading American troops), his links had been not to Iraq but to Iran."
The Washington Post similarly reported in April that "The U.S. military is conducting a propaganda campaign to magnify the role of the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, according to internal military documents and officers familiar with the program. The effort may have overstated his importance and helped the Bush administration tie the war to the organization responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks."
Even so, al-Zarqawi's importance should not be minimized. Even though Weaver argues persuasively that he was so violent, particularly against innocent Muslim civilians, that even bin Laden and his cronies did not trust him, they never repudiated his claim to be head of "al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia."
But, as we look ahead to see just how fragmented his ruthless band may be in his wake, or who will try to take his place, it is important to remember the political events that propelled al-Zarqawi into the international spotlight. Sometimes it's better for faceless bands of terrorist thugs to remain faceless.