Sunday night was a very weird, historic moment, my extended family and I all gathered around the TV waiting to hear the president speak. It could’ve been a radio during WWII; it could’ve been a black and white TV in July of 1969. It struck me, even as it was happening, that not only had this same tableau played out over and over again over the years, but that it was probably happening all over the country, and maybe all over the world, at that very minute. Usually, it’s just me and Scott; the dogs don’t seem to care too much about world events. But we were in Montana with Scott’s sister, her husband, and their teenage son; all of us together as our world changed again, as the nation exhaled after holding its breath for a decade.
I felt conflicted about the news. Actually, that’s not exactly right—I wasn’t conflicted about the news that we had finally taken out bin Laden, even as I was surprised that it had finally happened. While I’m not pro-death-penalty, (because I don’t think it’s practical, I don’t think it deters a damn thing, and I don’t believe in hell), there are some people who engage in crimes so heinous, on so massive a scale, what else can you do with them? Osama bin Laden was that kind of criminally psychotic person; anyone who joyfully plots the violent death of thousands clearly cannot be allowed to remain in society; not any society. “There’s a man that needs killin’” comes to mind. I felt no remorse for our nation’s having finally done it; no pity for the man who had none for so many. I don’t think we were wrong to do it, and while I’m skeptical that chopping off the head of Al-Qaeda will kill the rest of the beast, I’d like to hope it’s true. The only thing I regretted was that we live in a world that creates a monster like bin Laden in the first place, a world where too often the last, worst option is nonetheless the right one.
What I was conflicted about was the people who thought it was a party, something to be celebrated. It may be justice, but it does not follow that there should be jubilation. Maybe it’s just my own nature to appreciate, quietly, being vindicated. But the screaming mob I saw on TV waving signs and flags, shouting slogans, and talking about how this occasion was so very important and momentous that they were going to use it as an excuse not to study for finals disgusted me. These are the kind of people who voluntarily attend a public hanging and cheer. I don’t understand that; never have. Putting someone to death may be necessary and right, but it’s not a good time. Or it shouldn’t be, anyway.
Now a lot of the people I saw on TV were college kids, and thoughtfulness and dignity are generally not attributes possessed in abundance by the young, and maybe that contributed to what I perceive as their overexuberance. But I’ve seen it all over the web and TV, by folks of all ages. Even the normally temperate Jon Stewart said he was pretty excited about it; as he’s a New Yorker, I decided to give him a pass, because obviously it means something more personal to him than it does to me. I’m just a random non-patriotic American with no personal connection to the tragedies of 9/11 beyond being a witness from afar who was sad that such a thing happened. I might feel very differently if that weren’t true.
The killing of one man, however evil, is certainly a victory of a sort, and highly symbolic to both our people and his. But I feel it is still not enough to balance the lives of thousands of soldiers we’ve lost in the last decade looking for him and his minions. And I can’t help but note (and I’m not the only one who has) that the celebrating mob cheering the death of bin Laden looked just like the mobs we see on TV burning American flags, effigies of our leaders, and shouting “Death to America!” That’s illuminating, I should think. Americans hate those mobs; in fact, I suspect that those cheering outside the White House hate them more, on average, than the rest of us, and yet they fail to recognize the irony in their behavior. But to me, the kind of rabid, unthinking patriotism fomented in our nation since 9/11 naturally is going to result in this kind of response; and that kind of patriotism isn’t unique to us; it looks the same wherever you find it in the world. All those foreign mobs Americans despise consider themselves patriots of their own country, too. The lesson is clearly visible, for anyone with eyes to see it.
C’mon, America. If we’re going to argue that we’re better than the rest of the world, then let’s be better, okay?