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After bin Laden’s Death, a Fist, a Heart and a Guitar

Named by US News & World Report as one of America’s Best Leaders of 2009, Eboo Patel is the founder and Executive Director of Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), a Chicago-based institution building the global interfaith youth movement. Author of the award-winning book Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation, Eboo is also a regular contributor to the Washington Post, National Public Radio and CNN. He is a member of President Obama’s Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and holds a doctorate in the sociology of religion from Oxford University, where he studied on a Rhodes scholarship. This post originally appeared on his blog The Faith Divide at the Washington Post.

PatelAs I listened to President Obama explain the chain of events that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden, I couldn’t help but think of my friend Eric Greitens. Eric’s doctorate at Oxford was on the effects of war on children. Imagine my surprise when he told me that he was training to be a Navy Seal.

“But you know how terrible war is, you have been with the orphaned children,” I sputtered. “How can you participate in it?”

“It is guys with guns that end wars, Eboo,” he told me.

Eric deployed four times over the last ten years, earning a bronze star and a purple heart. One of his missions was to command a Navy Seal cell that targeted al Qaeda. It was likely some of Eric’s buddies - guys he trained with, maybe guys he trained - that got bin Laden.

Eric titled his book, The Heart and the Fist, for a reason. He knows as well as anyone that you may well need the fist to crush evil but you need the heart to radiate good. The fist is fine for defeating enemies, but the heart is what builds societies.

That’s what I liked about Obama’s speech yesterday. He was very clearly our commander in chief - recounting how he told C.I.A. Director Leon Panetta to make the capture or killing of Osama bin Laden his top priority, getting frequent briefings on the relevant intelligence and giving the final order that authorized the fatal mission. His demeanor was focused and serious. ‘I did what had to be done,’ he seemed to be saying.

Vanquishing evil is necessary but insufficient.

Obama seemed most human to me, most American, most presidential, when he spoke of life, not death. He recalled America in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, a nation shocked and grieving, a country focused more on community than revenge:

“On September 11, 2001, in our time of grief, the American people came together. We offered our neighbors a hand, and we offered the wounded our blood. We reaffirmed our ties to each other, and our love of community and country. On that day, no matter where we came from, what God we prayed to, or what race or ethnicity we were, we were united as one American family.”

That line brought to mind two key moments. The first involves George Bush. A lot of Americans think of the fist when they think of the post-9/11 George Bush. But I think at least as defining as his roar at Ground Zero and his boasting of “Wanted: Dead or Alive” posters was his visit to an Islamic Center six days after 9/11. There, he spoke movingly not only of Islam being a peaceful faith but about how Muslim women with headscarves ought to feel safe in this country:

“I’ve been told that some fear to leave; some don’t want to go shopping for their families; some don’t want to go about their ordinary daily routines because, by wearing cover, they’re afraid they’ll be intimidated. That should not and that will not stand in America.”

He went on to make it clear whose side he was on, which America he hoped to build.

“Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don’t represent the best of America, they represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior.”

The second moment took place nearly a year later, on September 25, 2002 - Bruce Springsteen at the United Center. During the climax of “The Rising,” as Springsteen was singing - Sky of longing and emptiness (a dream of life), Sky of fullness, sky of blessed life (a dream of life) - I saw out of the corner of my eye a young woman in a Muslim headscarf, eyes closed, hands raised.

Woody Guthrie had a message scrawled on his guitar: “This machine kills fascists.”

Sometimes you need the aid of guns in that mission. But when we think of who we want to be, not just what we need to destroy, American guns are second to American guitars.