For most of us, martyrdom lies beyond understanding; we recoil from it. Of all the pronouncements of Osama bin Laden, none baffles Westerners, shaped (as they suppose) by rationality and the Enlightenment, as much as his celebration of the martyr's sacrifice. We puzzle over bin Laden's apparent conviction, in a 1996 fatwa, that at the moment of death, a martyr will feel no more pain than if he were being pinched. We giggle nervously at the rewards bin Laden says a martyr will receive in paradise--marriage to 72 virgins, divine intercession on behalf of 70 relatives.
We should try harder. Martyrs win by losing, and we don't want the world's most famous martyr-in-waiting to win. Given the success so far of the military campaign in Afghanistan, it seems highly likely that bin Laden will soon be dead. He may be killed by U.S. forces who find his lair, or he may meet his death in the rubble of a bomb blast. Perhaps his end will come at the hands of those closest to him; bin Laden's bodyguards are said to have sworn to kill their leader rather than let him be captured. The precise form of bin Laden's death is of little significance. What matters is that on earth he be denied a martyr's crown.
Many scholars would say that is impossible. Bin Laden, they argue, is already a hero in the Islamic world; his death will merely inspire a thousand--10,000--imitators. That lends a logic to the acts of Sept. 11. At first glance the deliberate provocation of the most powerful nation in the world made little sense. But if America's reaction to that atrocity inspires a generation of young Muslims to commit themselves to armed struggle against the West, bin Laden wins. Then all the money spent on space-age pilotless planes and U.S. special forces, with their night-vision goggles and heat-seeking sensors, has been wasted, and all those who were killed on Sept. 11 have died in vain.
To give them a worthwhile legacy, the U.S. and its allies now need to fight on three fronts. The shooting war is not over; indeed, it may have hardly started. Whatever happens to bin Laden, al-Qaeda's fighters must be hunted down and disarmed; if they seek safe havens elsewhere or if other countries are proved to be assisting al-Qaeda, then the war may yet spread far beyond Afghanistan's plains.
America's battle plan for the second front was written 137 years ago. When Abraham Lincoln spoke at his second Inaugural, he implored Americans to "bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan." Few nations are as wounded as Afghanistan; even fewer have so many pitiable widows and orphans. If it is true (and it is) that U.S. policy over the past 20 years is not the main or even proximate cause of such suffering, it is also true that America is the richest nation on earth and Afghanistan one of the poorest. A large measure of generosity--aid, medicine, a program to remove the land mines that keep Afghan fields untilled and maim Afghan children--can prolong the smiles on the faces of those liberated in the past two weeks. There must be no replay of America's thoughtlessness in 1989, when, after the defeated Soviet forces marched across the Oxus River, Washington dropped Afghanistan like a used tissue.