WASHINGTON -- One should not speak ill of the dead, but an exception easily can be made for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The only tears he will probably earn are the tears of anguish for those he murdered, maimed or otherwise brutalized.
He was a true thug among terrorist leaders, a street gangster who hijacked Islam and turned from petty crime to mass murder.
Although it remains to be seen just how great the impact of Mr. al-Zarqawi's death will be, it will not be small. His troops constituted only a small fraction of the more than 60 insurgent groups causing mayhem in Iraq, but he enhanced his influence through fear spread with a publicity-hungry ruthlessness, including videotaped beheadings.
Yet the White House reaction surrounding his death in a massive explosion last week was noticeably subdued, compared with its champagne-cork-popping exuberance following the capture of Saddam Hussein and the killing of his two sons. President Bush announced no turning point in the war, only an "opportunity" for the new Iraqi government to turn the tide.
Mr. Bush's caution was well founded. Past claims of turning points in the war have turned against us. The president also wisely avoids any more of his early "bring 'em on" and "wanted dead or alive" cowboy talk.
And I hope the Bush administration understands by now the tricky nature of publicity for terrorists in this media age, in which many see publicity as destiny.
For example, the White House had to figure out which Mr. al-Zarqawi had died. Was it the cunning and murderous international menace that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell introduced to the world in 2003? Or was it the bumbling thug in gym shoes who apparently couldn't handle an automatic rifle in a video that the U.S. military released in April?
Both versions are valid. Mr. al-Zarqawi was a small-timer who hit the big time in February 2003 when Mr. Powell made the case for war in Iraq to the United Nations. Mr. Powell identified Mr. al-Zarqawi incorrectly, we now know, as a major link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden and the one who "helped establish" a terrorist training camp to produce ricin and other poisons in northeastern Iraq.
As the world knows by now, no ricin or other weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq. But Mr. al-Zarqawi became as famous as bin Laden in world terrorist circles. If his importance was not created by the United States, it was inflated, first to validate the alleged Hussein-al-Qaida link and second to put an easy-to-hate non-Iraqi face on Iraq's otherwise faceless and highly complicated insurgency.
"One can only imagine how astonished al-Zarqawi must have been when Colin Powell named him as the crucial link between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein's regime," writes author Mary Anne Weaver in a lengthy profile of Mr. al-Zarqawi in the latest Atlantic Monthly. "He was not even officially a part of al-Qaida, and ever since he had left Afghanistan [from which he fled invading American troops], his links had been not to Iraq but to Iran."
Even so, Mr. al-Zarqawi's importance should not be minimized. Even though Ms. Weaver argues persuasively that Mr. al-Zarqawi was so violent, particularly against innocent Muslim civilians, that even bin Laden and his cronies did not trust him, they never repudiated his claim to be head of "al-Qaida in Mesopotamia."
As we look ahead to see just how fragmented Mr. al-Zarqawi's ruthless band may be in his wake or who will try to take his place, it is important to remember the events that propelled him into the international spotlight. Sometimes it is better for faceless bands of terrorist thugs to remain faceless.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is email@example.com.