"To feel excited about somebody's death is a weird feeling, but when it comes to Osama bin Laden, it's all right," a young man who lost his father in the collapse of the Twin Towers told a CBS News reporter.
The crowds in Times Square and in front of the White House were exultant over the killing of the world's most wanted man on Sunday. A Phillies baseball game was overshadowed by chants of "USA, USA". Crowds across the US sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "God Bless America", waved flags and blew vuvuzelas. Under the headline, "Justice!", the New York Post's editorial summed up the mood: "The son of a bitch is dead. Ding dong."
The jubilation was understandable. For nearly ten years the elusive Osama bin Laden has haunted America. For all of its military might and sophisticated intelligence agencies, the US had failed to find the murderous thug who was responsible for the deaths of nearly 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001.
And not only Americans. In his dignified speech announcing the event, President Obama said that he was also responsible for the deaths of "scores" of Muslims. Actually, this is an incredible understatement. About a score of Muslims died in the 9/11 attacks alone. Bin Laden's al-Qaeda central was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Muslims. And this does not include thousands of other caused by al-Qaeda affiliates.
Governments all over the world welcomed the news. "The history of our nationalism and Islam will never forgive that man who was a black mark for two decades, filling the minds of youngsters with ideas about terrorism, murder and destruction," said the caretaker prime minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri, a Sunni Muslim. The president of Peru bizarrely linked the death to the beatification of John Paul II on the same day, declaring that his "first miracle has been to wipe off the face of this earth and demonic incarnation of crime, evil and hate".
One welcome outcome of the bin Laden's death has been the lack of partisan sniping. Politicians of all political strips united behind their Commander-in-Chief. But was bin Laden's demise really a victory for "all who believe in peace and human dignity", as President Obama put it?
Not really. There was something weird about the tooting horns and the fist-pumping. It was jubilation at the death of a human being, just as objectionable as people cheering outside jails after the execution of a murderer. Osama bin Laden was a man responsible for horrendous evil. But he was a man, not a character in a video game.
Occasionally people send me images of Palestinians rejoicing in the streets at the collapse of the Twin Towers. They are trying to prove that Islam is essentially murderous, hate-filled and vindictive. To me it proves only that crowds are excitable and that college students in Times Square are remarkably like the residents of the slums of the Gaza strip, both excitable and easily swayed by base emotions. They both need to read the wise words of Martin Luther King Jr:
"The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes... Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."
It is absurdly exaggerated to claim, as the President did in his speech, that "today's achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people". It was certainly a testament to the skill of the American military. But surely greatness is more than nailing a fugitive. Genuine greatness of spirit lies in following up victory with magnanimity and wisdom.
These will be tested in the weeks and months ahead. Al-Qaeda operatives will probably launch attacks. The US's uneasy relationship with Pakistan has been severely shaken by the revelation that bin Laden must have been supported by elements in the Pakistani military and intelligence service. Managing this will require the wisdom of Solomon.
Attacks on Christians may multiply in Pakistan and elsewhere. Suggestions that enhanced interrogation techniques, aka torture, may have yielded vital clues could reopen the door to abuses.
Nonetheless, there are reasons to celebrate. As Saudi journalist Jamal A. Khashoggi points out, "it is the right ending for Osama because the recent development in the Arab world clearly indicated that there was no place for him or his ideology. The rise of the nonviolent movement in the Arab world was the complete rejection of the Al-Qaeda philosophy."
The bombs of al-Qaeda failed to topple Arab autocrats, but peaceful demonstrations did. Hopefully the death of bin Laden symbolises a smouldering end to the seductive appeal of violence amongst Muslims.