If Romans had had such a concept as a ‘right to life’, their jurists would have dealt with the question whether it should be possible to lose it. Given that the salus (safety/security/well-being) of the people should be the ultimate law (Cicero), one can guess what their answer would be. But whatever one’s view of bin Laden’s tragic passing, al-Qa’eda’s preference for settling disputes with the bomb and gun throws up a juicy prospect: there is a vacancy for a new mastermind.
The collapse of the Roman republic in the 1st century BC was down to dynasts such as Marius, Sulla, Pompey and Caesar using the might of soldiers loyal to them, and not the state, to impose their own will on the Senate. As Cicero lamented to Brutus, ‘We are made a mockery by the whims of soldiers and arrogance of their generals. Everyone demands as much political power as the army at his back can deliver. Reason, moderation, law, tradition, duty count for nothing.’ Vicious civil war was the disastrous consequence.
But the emergence of a ‘constitutional’ imperial system under Rome’s first emperor Augustus did not affect this very basic Roman instinct. When Nero committed suicide in AD 68, there was no obvious successor. Four generals promptly fought it out for supremacy, each briefly declared emperor in turn, until Vespasian settled the matter. During the 3rd century AD, increasing pressure on Rome’s borders from Germans in the north and Persians in the east made professional soldier emperors the fashion. In the hundred years before Constantine (312), there were more than 60 emperors, or people declared emperor; in 238 alone there were technically six. And this was Rome!
If that is anything to go by, and bin Laden, as well as being a figure-head, really was as central to the organisation as the Americans claim, it may be that we should put serious behind-the-scenes efforts into encouraging the Egyptian al-Zawahiri and the Americo-Yemeni al-Awlaki to blow each other to bits for the top job — but only on the very purest of ideological grounds, of course.