I’m surprised we haven’t heard more about the Hitler-Osama connection. Only a couple of the pundits I’ve read have remarked that the announcements of their deaths both came on May 1. When Hitler died, there was a little less evil in the world. The same is true for Osama. But the parallels don’t stretch much further. With Hitler’s death came the end of Nazism and unconditional surrender. People who celebrated weren’t cheering Hitler’s death so much as the end of a long, brutal war.
In the War on Terror, though, no end appears to be in sight. And how could it be? The “enemy” remains amorphous and hydra-headed. Its leader is now dead, and it’s not clear who would capitulate in his absence. More to the point, we don’t have well-defined war aims, and we never did. Nabbing Osama was as close to a clear goal as Bush or Obama ever articulated. Even with him dead, the WoT grinds on. As my students wondered last quarter: How will we know when we’re done? How can we know if the WoT has been “won” or “lost”?
Well, let’s examine the balance, so far. On one side of the ledger: Thousands of soldiers and hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians dead. Rampant Islamophobia. Over a trillion dollars spent while children go hungry, here in the U.S. and globally. Strained relations with our allies. Fertile ground for demagogues like Palin, Beck, Limbaugh, and now Trump. Spies screening our emails and investigating our library records. Naked body scanners and grope-downs in our airports. The demolition of habeas corpus. The triumph of the “unitary executive” over checks and balances. Contempt for the rule of law. Abu Ghraib. Guantanamo. Extraordinary rendition. Torture in our name.
On the other side: One dead fanatic who threatened the world at large. One dead dictator who posed no danger whatsoever to anyone except his own subject. And as a special bonus: Uday and Qusay! (Maybe they knew where the yellowcake was hidden?)
I’m not sad Osama is dead, but I am ashamed that my fellow Americans are treating this like we just won the World Cup. “We Are the Champions?” Really? If you lost loved ones on 9/11 or in the WoT – if your life has been on the line – then you can celebrate any damn way you choose. In this college town, Osama’s death brought people out to the bars on a Sunday night, wrapped in flags and drenched in beer. That’s not to denigrate the real joy or relief people may have felt, but somehow those feelings merged seamlessly with the student drinking culture. Even cutting the kids some slack (they were pre-teens on 9/11), it feels like celebrating an execution with only a glancing thought for the dead man’s victims. Which, you know, people used to do all the time with hangings in the public square; it’s just that we pretend we’re more civilized than that now.
I put my husband on a bus today. From there, he’s boarding a plane to Germany. While I’m pretty confident he’ll be fine, this is not a week I would have chosen to fly, had we known what was coming down the pike.
Obama Osama is a martyr now. The months ahead will likely bring retribution.
How about you? Are you feeling safer yet?
(Thanks to Evil Fizz and Hugo for the correction of the typo – which originally appeared in the headline, too! Geez, I’m as bad as Fox News! Teach me to hit “publish” while I’m flying out the door for school pickup. Sincere apologies for the screw-up.)
Update, 5:45 p.m., May 13, 2011: Throughout last Saturday, I heard repeated drunken chants from a nearby street party that college students throw annually. “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!” Tim Wise has, well, wise words of warning to those partiers, unheeded though they may be:
So yes, we can argue that bin Laden deserved to die. But that’s the easy part. Beyond what onedeserves, whether they be terrorists or just street criminals, there is the matter of what society needs. And it may be that what a healthy society needs is less bombastic rhetoric, less celebratory embrace of violence, and less jingoistic nationalism, even if that means that we have to respond to the news of bin Laden’s death with a more muted tone, perhaps being thankful in private, or even drinking a toast with friends in our own homes, but not turning the matter into public spectacle, the likes of which cheapens matters of life and death to little more than a contest whose results can be tallied on a scoreboard.
It may prove cathartic that one the likes of bin Laden is dead. His death may provide an opportunity for a much-needed exhaling; but that doesn’t render it the proper subject of a pep rally. And given the larger need to challenge the mentality of disposability that is at the root of all murderous violence, it may be that in such moments we would be far better off to solemnly commemorate the death of the monster than to cheer it openly, when the latter is so likely to inflame passions on the part of those whose allegiance to the monster remained unsullied right to the end.
It’s not just a pep rally. It’s a drunken binge. And while the past week has shown that there will be some tangible, non-psychological benefits from killing bin Laden (in the form of intelligence on future Al Qaeda attacks), the hangover from these shitfaced celebrations is liable to negate those gains.