When it comes to 9/11, Richard Cohen is all about the revenge. Sort of. "The horror of Sept. 11 resides in me like a dormant pathogen. . . . I vowed vengeance that day -- yes, good Old Testament-style vengeance -- and that ember glows within me still," he has written, and he's still burning today. "Bring me the head of Osama bin Laden," he cries in his latest little essay on retribution. Not only do we, the witnesses to terrorist murder and Nazi extermination, demand it, but so, too, do their dead victims. And it's not just bin Laden and the Taliban he's after. About the martyrs of the Lockerbie bomber he declares, "I believe they do not want me to forget." And then there are the victims -- make that "alleged victims" -- of John Demjanjuk, recently deported to Germany to face trial for crimes he "allegedly" committed during his six-month tenure as a guard at Sobibor in 1943, when 29,000 Jews were annihilated there.
The man is 89 and you are entitled to ask when enough is enough. But then you also have to ask yourself about his alleged victims and wonder if we can -- if we ever can -- tell them that their time has passed . . . and their deaths no longer matter.
Yes, if you're Richard Cohen you do have to ask yourself that and wonder about it, and ask again. And maybe wonder some more. Because the need for vengeance can make Incredible Hulks of the best of us, and Mr. Cohen struggles to contain that inner monster, lurking all unseemly beneath his civilized columnist's exterior:
I am not that sort of person. Revenge does not seem a fit subject for a column, or a columnist. When we talk about Afghanistan, whether to stay or go, whether to hold the cards we now have or double down, we reach for all sorts of Metternichian reasons -- but never something as basic, as raw, as revenge. The word smacks of a primitive blood lust. It is revolting.
"It is revolting," and yet he brags about his blood lust, insists we owe it to the fallen of 9/11 to avenge them by . . . well . . . Mr. Cohen's yearning for vengeance is at war with his trademark equivocating authorial wobble, so his finger's on the trigger but he just can't pull it. Should we stay in Afghanistan? Should we leave? "These things are never easy." There are good arguments for both, but maybe leaving would be worse, because we'd be abandoning "Afghan progressives and women and all the girls who would never get an education," and "A Taliban-controlled Afghanistan would make common cause with extremist elements in Pakistan, both civilian and military." Worst of all, we'd
have to acknowledge that we have broken our vow not only to Afghans who have supported us -- the Taliban, unlike us, will get its revenge -- but also with the dead of Sept. 11, 2001. We meant well. . . . Sorry.
A limp trigger-finger isn't his only problem. Equally disturbing is the comic-book (non-Metternichian) version of warfare he appears to believe in, in which nations declare war on one another in order to exact revenge. "The killers of Americans ought to pay for what they've done. It is good foreign policy." It might be a sweet by-product of a nation's fight against its implacable enemy, but of all the reasons to wage a war -- of all the reasons we've been waging this war since 9/11 -- vengeance-seeking is the least of them. Mr. Cohen's been writing his column for 25 years. When will we be "entitled to ask when enough is enough"?