As you will have learned from my previous post, Osama’s death moved me to quiet, conflicted reflection about the tragedy of 9/11 and American power in the world. I thought about the poor families of victims of 9/11 and what this would mean to them, and I thought about how their tragedy had been used and abused by people with power and influence. I pondered the term “justice” and whether it had been served, and wondered what a constitutional law professor like Obama must have really thought about the targeted killing of an unarmed man. I thought about how there are people who make the world a worse place, and that when they leave, the world is automatically better off.
I thought about a lot of things. But one thing that was not on my mind was celebration and exaltation. Fist pumps were the last thing on my mind, and chanting “USA-USA” seemed only slightly more offensive than it was crass. Imagine my horror when I saw footage of the celebration outside of the White House, which looked more like “Spring Break: Washington, DC” than it did a crowd reacting to the death of a man, albeit an enemy. I felt furious at my fellow Americans; were we really so primitive? Don’t we watch videos of old westerns and cringe at how our benighted ancestors treated public hangings like social events? I was willing to give family members of 9/11 victims a “get out of jail free card,” who was I to question how they would react to the death of the mastermind of the attacks? I was also willing to cut some slack for those men and women who had been directly tasked with finding Osama bin Laden, after all, this was a success for them to celebrate with full gusto. But I have a sneaking suspicion that the 19 year old dude climbing the light pole and the 22 year old college student pumping her fist do not fall in either of these categories. If you had turned the tv on mute, you would have thought that the United States had just won the men’s downhill skiing competition. It felt like we were back in the fall of 2001, when the country was draped in aggressive patriotism and Toby Keith’s anthems of American supremacy dominated the airwaves. I could almost hear the frat boy shouting “See what happens when you F*ck with Uncle Sam?!” This was not how I wanted my fellow Americans to react, and this was not the America that I signed up for.
To my relief, I spoke with a friend who had been at the event and she reported that the news coverage had not shown an accurate representation of the mood at the White House. While there were the frat boy elements, she said that the majority of people were calmly standing around. The mood was jubilant, but also reflective. I have also had the chance to speak with friends who did feel celebratory, and they explained that their exaltation came out of a hope that his death marked the end of an ugly chapter, full of wars, partisan politics, fear, and disunity. To them, Bin Laden was a figure who was not only responsible for the death of 3,000 Americans, but also for everything that was wrong in the post-9/11 world.
I find this explanation to be problematic, as it absolves Americans of the role that they played in the various missteps of the last 10 years. I also think that many Americans fail to understand that their good-hearted patriotism can across slightly sour since we are a global hegemon whose military might is felt around the world. But I can understand the deep yearning for unity, and the feeling of relief that our divided country finally has something to celebrate. It is an unfortunate fact of life that the best way to unify a group of people is to have a shared enemy, and no amount of philosophical ruminating about the celebration of death will change that fact.
I was in the West Bank when the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel broke out. The conflict was sparked when Hezbollah attacked an Israeli convoy, killing 5 soldiers. I was shocked and quite disturbed to see celebrations in the streets of Ramallah, with Palestinians passing out sweets and candy over these deaths. For them, the Israeli army is responsible for murdering innocent Palestinians, and therefore any attack on the IDF is one to be celebrated. Perhaps those who celebrated the death of Bin Laden would feel more comfortable with the Palestinians’ reaction to the death of an Israeli soldier, but it troubled me to see mirth at the death of any human being.
At the end of the day, I can understand the urge to celebrate the death of one’s enemy, but I think that we should pause before handing out candy and pumping our fist. As a Unitarian, I can’t say I am too familiar with bible verses, but there is one that has resonated with me during these past few days.
“Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble.”~ Proverbs 24:17
I wouldn’t want to endanger our country’s sacred secularism, but I think it would behoove Americans–especially those who are in fact Christian–to take this verse to heart.