question of the weekend: Is it okay to celebrate the death of an enemy?
In a way, I’m glad I wasn’t in New York for the news of the death of Osama bin Laden last weekend. The chanting and the flag waving and the celebrating was so distasteful just watching it on TV from across th Atlantic — I don’t think I could have borne seeing it in person. Those images looked too much like the similar ones we saw from the Middle East when the Twin Towers came down.
It’s not that I don’t understand the horrors of 9/11, as has been the rationale some have offered to justify the impromptu street parties at Ground Zero. I was there on 9/11. I spent much of the day trying to find a friend whom I thought might have been in or near the Twin Towers (she was okay, as it turned out). I later learned that an acquaintance had been killed in the WTC. I lived, as the entire city did, with the lingering stench of the smoldering ruins, which smelled like burning rubber and electricity, and didn’t dissipate till Christmas. I lived with the “Have you seen my husband?” and “Missing: sister” flyers all over the city, which are probably the most heartbreaking things I’ve encounter in my entire life. I know exactly what happened on 9/11, and what it did to my city.
But mostly all I’ve been able to feel about the death of Osama bin Laden is sadness. Not for him — I’m not sorry he’s dead — but for the whole big damn mess of a situation. I’ve been horrified to see far too many Americans cheer not only the death of Osama bin Laden but the way the U.S. killed him: extralegally, via an incursion into a sovereign nation, and without due process. Glenn Greenwald at Salon summarizes my feelings perfectly:
I think what’s really going on here is that there are a large number of people who have adopted the view that bin Laden’s death is an unadulterated Good, and it therefore simply does not matter how it happened (ends justify the means, roughly speaking). There are, I think, two broad groups adopting this mindset: (1) those, largely on the Right, who believe the U.S. is at War and anything we do to our Enemies is basically justifiable; and (2) those, mostly Democrats, who reject that view — who genuinely believe in general in due process and adherence to ostensible Western norms of justice — yet who view bin Laden as a figure of such singular Evil (whether in reality or as a symbol) that they’re willing to make an exception in his case, willing to waive away their principles just for him: creating the Osama bin Laden Exception.
Although I don’t agree with it, I have a healthy respect for that latter reaction. None of us is a pure rationality machine. We all at some point depart from our principles in particular cases, or find reasons to make exceptions, or simply view the outcome as so desirable that we don’t care how it can be reconciled with our claimed views. But I think if one is going to do that here, then one is obligated to acknowledge it and then grapple with what it means and what the implications are — rather than just pretending that it’s not happening.
My principal objection to it — aside from the fact that I think those principles shouldn’t be violated because they’re inherently right (which is what makes them principles) — is that there’s no principled way to confine it to bin Laden. If this makes sense for bin Laden, why not for other top accused Al Qaeda leaders? Why shouldn’t the same thing be done to Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S. citizen who has been allegedly linked by the Government to far more attacks over the last several years than bin Laden? At Guantanamo sits Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged operational mastermind of 9/11 — who was, if one believes the allegations, at least as responsible for the attack as bin Laden and about whom there is as little perceived dobut; why shouldn’t we just take him out back today and shoot him in the head and dump his corpse into the ocean rather than trying him?
Once you embrace the bin Laden Exception, how does it stay confined to him? Isn’t it necessarily the case that you’re endorsing the right of the U.S. Government to treat any top-level Terrorists in similar fashion? Again, this isn’t an argument that the bin Laden killing was illegal; it very well may have been legal, depending on the facts. But if we just cheer for this without caring about those facts, isn’t it clear that we’re endorsing a dangerous unfettered power — one that runs afoul of multiple principles which opponents of the Bush/Cheney template have long defended?
For me, the better principles are those established by the Nuremberg Trials, and numerous other war crimes trials accorded some of history’s most gruesome monsters. It should go without saying for all but the most intellectually and morally stunted that none of this has anything to do with sympathy for bin Laden. Just as was true for objections to the torture regime or Guantanamo or CIA black sites, this is about the standards to which we and our Government adhere, who we are as a nation and a people.
(As is usually the case with Greenwald, there’s much much more to this piece — even this lengthy quote is only a small part — and it’s all worth reading.)
The thing about American ideals of justice is that they’re supposed to apply to everyone, equally. We’re not supposed to have a king who decides unilaterally on the guilt of someone. We’re not supposed to “just know” that someone is guilty. We’re supposed to prove it.
And that American ideal of justice is also supposed to be not just blind but dispassionate. That doesn’t mean we’re not allowed to get angry about a terrible crime — it means we’re not supposed to let that anger rule us.
All those shouts of “USA! USA!” we saw in the streets of New York and Washington last week were so ironic to me, as if those people don’t really understand what is truly exceptional about America. Instead, they were embracing the ugly notion of American exceptionalism, which is that America cannot, by definition, do any wrong, no matter what it is. The killing of bin Laden by American soliders is a separate thing from the celebrating of it. The first could have happened and it prompted a discussion about just what the hell America is doing roaming all over the world invading whomever the hell it deems necessary. That didn’t happen.
On the flip side, there’s this, from PQED: Philosophical Questions Every Day, by philosopher Jack Russell Weinstein:
[S]ometimes we celebrate because we don’t have the tools to do better. Sometimes we make jokes because it’s the best vocabulary we have for catharsis. Sometimes we act a certain way because we are, at that moment, incapable of acting differently. Would it have been better if the spontaneous crowds shouted, “we are relieved!” instead of “USA!”? Perhaps. Should the Facebook posts have read “now I have a little less anxiety,” instead of “yay! We got the bastard””? Maybe. Should all of us engage in a collective, soul-searching, mapping of the complex emotional landscape that living in a dangerous world and fighting three wars (four if you count the war against terror) requires of us? Yes. We should. And doing so is part of the motivation of this post. But in times of great relief, in moments of catharsis, in instances of collective identification, we ought to have permission to be imperfect creatures who emphasize the most immediate emotion and the most powerful expressions. Jon Stewart accurately called his celebration of Bin Laden’s death a show of “pure id.” I couldn’t have said it better. And it makes me realize that the true answer to the question “should we celebrate an enemy’s death?” is not either “yes” or “no” but rather “first yes then no.” Given all that we have been through and all that Bin Laden has meant for everyone in the world, we ought to be entitled to a period of celebration and catharsis, but then we also need to get over it.
I’m more sympathetic to this stand, but my main objection would be: When is America anything other than pure id? Americans on the whole have never been a thoughtful, intellectual people. It’s not like the reaction of the general American public is anything other than what we should have expected, is it?
What do you think? Is it okay to celebrate the death of an enemy?
(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD/QOTW, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTW sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)
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