In the end, Osama bin Laden got off easy.
Killed yesterday in a daring night raid on his compound in Pakistan, Osama's corpse was whisked away by American Special Forces so they could prove that the world's most feared monster had been dispatched.
But now that this colossal dragon had been slain, what would we do with his carcass? Certainly many among us fantasized gruesome indignities, or at least something akin to being trapped in a jet fuel-soaked, burning skyscraper as it crumbled to dust.
But in civilized societies, fantasies and societies often diverge. In this case, DNA and photos were taken and before the sun set again, Osama was quietly sent on his way to Allah and whatever rewards awaited him in Jannah, the Muslim heaven.
Today, a U.S. government official said, quite simply, that Osama was buried at sea and his body was “handled in accordance with Islamic practice and tradition. This is something that we take very seriously, and so therefore this is being handled in an appropriate manner.”
For being on the short list of history's most hated and feared monsters, Osama received a more respectful burial than many lesser enemies of the state. In fact, for all our self-righteous preening about our superior civilization and manners, the United States has actually treated the corpses of its worst antagonists with contempt and irreverence, occasionally bordering on post-mortem sadism.
History is full of examples. Ordinary criminals and evil-doers generally were usually dumped in unmarked graves outside the fences of our "proper" cemeteries. Some were lynched and their bodies defiled in grisly ways (such as Old West train robber "Big Nose" George Parrott, whose skin was turned into a pair of shoes for the governor, and whose skull became a candy dish.)
In 1942, eight Nazi saboteurs landed secretly in America to wreak as much havoc as possible, but their evil plot came unraveled. Six were executed and buried in a remote potter's field in Washington beneath wooden slats bearing only numbers. In time, the graves were lost completely, and that was just fine with American authorities.
Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth (ironically, also mortally wounded in a bold night raid by soldiers) was dissected and initially packed in an old musket case and buried in an unmarked grave on a Washington Army post in 1865. Later, his box was moved to a warehouse where it sat for several years until it was returned to his family (who buried it in another unmarked grave.)
Almost 40 years later, a strange story arose that Booth had eluded his captors and had committed suicide in an Oklahoma hotel room. On the off-chance that the body they tended was, in fact, Booth, the local morticians mummified him and propped his corpse in a rocking chair (reading a newspaper) in their front window for several years, until his body was claimed by a Tennessee lawyer who sold Booth's Mummy into the carnival sideshow circuit. It toured freak shows for decades until disappearing in the 1970s.
In fact, presidential assassins never fared well.
Charles Guiteau, who murdered President James Garfield in 1881, was hanged and dismembered before all but his brain (shipped to a doctor in Pennsylvania) was dumped into an acid vat. His bleached bones and a few other morsels are still in the U.S. Army's National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington.
Leon Czolgosz, President McKinley's anarchist assassin, died in the electric chair in 1901. His body was laid in an acid-filled casket and buried unmarked in New York.
JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was treated slightly better in death, but hardly with generous respect. His funeral in 1963 was deliberately scheduled at the same moment as JFK's services because authorities knew all eyes would be glued to the president's televised funeral, not on Oswald's. In fact, not even Oswald's wife attended his simple graveside service in Fort Worth. Six reporters had to be drafted to act as pallbearers ... because only reporters showed up.
So while it's not known if an imam said any final words over Osama's corpse as it was assigned to The Deep, it's clear he got a slightly better send-off than many of America's enemies have gotten. And in the end, maybe there's some reason to think we're actually starting to get the hang of this civilization thing.
UPDATE 12:12 PM CDT: "Today's religious rites were conducted on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson in the Arabian sea. The ceremony started at 1:10am and finished at 2:10am ET," the second official said. "Procedures for Islamic body were followed. The body was washed and placed in a white sheet. A military official read prepared remarks, which were then translated into Arabic by a native speaker. The body of Osama bin Laden was placed on a flat board, which was then tipped up, and allowed to slide into the sea."