The death of Osama bin Laden is testing my principles in ways that 9/11 never did.
For me, unlike most people, 9/11 was not shocking. It saddened me terribly, of course, but I saw it as the culmination of years of misguided foreign policy, which I had been following as a student of both journalism and political science. Nothing about its root causes was news to me, nor did I harbor the illusion that the U.S. was some invincible, universally beloved power. That’s likely why I avoided the emotional turmoil that led even my most liberal classmates to call for violent death and war in the immediate aftermath. I remember a local service station putting on its sign, “FIND OUT WHO DID IT AND KILL THEM ALL!” I remember nearly everybody I talked to giving me grief for not being enraged rather than sad. But even in the aftermath of tragedy, I wondered how unfocused vengeance and macho murder talk could become the new definition of patriotism. And while I never thought that the Bush administration had a hand in 9/11, I did think, “This gives them license to do every terrible thing they want to do.” That won me a lot of friends, as you can probably imagine.
At no point during 9/11, the resultant wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the “Mission Accomplished” fiasco or the capture and death of Saddam Hussein did I ever feel any moment of joy or pride in what we were doing. I thought then, as I do now, that our leaders rushed into these conflicts out of emotional manipulation and political machismo, and that any moral high ground we had evaporated quickly. It seemed like everything our leaders were doing was wrong, and we were wrong to celebrate.
So I was surprised last night to feel some good vibes after President Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had been captured and killed by U.S. forces. For the first time since 2001, I felt relief. And I felt bad about it. Because though I initially supported the war in Afghanistan, that support flagged as time passed. This hasn’t revived it. And yet...
Osama’s exit from this mortal coil has provoked a lot of introspection within me. I want to simultaneously cheer with the throngs and sit in sober thought with those who refuse to celebrate. Because I think they’re both right.
Part of me wants to cheer, if only inside, because Osama bin Laden was the No. 1 threat to the world, both symbolically and literally. As far as our Middle East excursions go, an end to his reign was one of the few worthwhile goals. And we undertook the task in a relatively respectable way.
The mission was the culmination of nine months of secret planning and execution, far removed from the banners and fanfare of the Bush era. U.S. Navy SEALS took Osama down in a firefight, which gives the affair an edge of self-defense that the public execution of Saddam Hussein lacked. We escaped unscathed, brought forth Osama’s corpse, confirmed it with DNA matches and processed it in accordance with Muslim practice before giving him a burial at sea (most likely because of lack of claimants). I wish they’d caught him alive, but like Bill Maher once said, “Death isn’t always sad.”
On the other hand, I find myself also agreeing with those who think it’s terrible that we’re cheering the fact that someone died. I abhor death. I never want anyone to die, no matter how wretched they are. I’m steadfastly against the death penalty, which I feel is based on vengeance, not justice. Just as the 9/11 attacks made prejudice and fear socially acceptable again, Osama’s death seems to bring out the bloodlust in many.
Perhaps this can be a learning experience for me, and a teachable moment for society. What is the appropriate way to cope with the violent death of someone so deserving of our contempt? How can we as Americans uphold our basic values and civil principles in the aftermath of much-sought bloodshed? Osama’s death won’t bring any victims back, but can it bring back our moral compass? Or will we become as belligerent as we were after 9/11? Is there a middle ground?
I hope there is. Because on top of the pull I’ve felt between these opposing reactions, I also feel capable of detachment. The title of one of last night’s blogs, “Some immediate thoughts,” is a misnomer; my first reaction was to write a joke tweet about how I won’t be satisfied until I see a long-form death certificate. After writing down my next batch of immediate thoughts, all of which were sober reflections, I felt odd about seeing that next to my joke tweet. But they both accurately described how I felt. Does that make sense?
I feel like I could write about all the reasons that it’s just terrific that Osama bin Laden is dead. And I could also write all the reasons that it’s not worth celebrating. How crucial this development is to the war on terror, or how it will affect nothing. Or, for that matter, a long list of too-soon jokes. And all would carry equal sincerity, because each would hit on one part of my busy psyche.
Watching videos has had the same effect. One involved a wrestler announcing the news to a crowd in Tampa Bay following a match. I felt warm when they cheered, but ice cold when it devolved into a chant of, “U-S-A! U-S-A!” – I can understand the joy and relief, but jingoistic, arrogant swagger is not my bag.
Anyway, such a sentiment misrepresents Osama’s death. Far from being a mere notch in America’s W column (pun not intended or appropriate), having him out of power is a benefit for the world, for all people opposed to rule by control and violence. In an age where the U.S. doesn’t always live up to its ideals, and often spreads them in the most tragically ironic manner possible, we at least prevented a vile person from pulling anymore strings in hiding. And whether or not it was worth years of effort, we finally got the right guy.
And that’s something I hope we can all agree on. Even when we aren’t sure what to think within ourselves.