Let me preface this column by stating unequivocally that I’m glad Osama bin Laden no longer poses any sort of threat.
Although I would’ve preferred that the terrorist leader be captured alive and stand trial for his crimes, realistically that was unlikely. Reliable intelligence sources have said bin Laden had told his bodyguards to kill him if it ever appeared that his capture was imminent. Not surprisingly, he didn’t want to be paraded while shackled in front of cameras by “infidels.”
To be sure, a rush of emotions gripped the nation once news broke late Sunday night that bin Laden had been killed in a U.S. raid at a mansion about 40 miles from Pakistan’s capital, and it’s to be expected that most people would feel relieved and, yes, a little happy.
When I heard the early rumors on TV around 10:45 p.m., my first reaction was disbelief, followed by a smile. (I’m not proud of that last fact, by the way.)
I’m thankful for the courageous Navy SEALs who undertook a dangerous mission under frightening circumstances. And I’m pleased the friends and families of people killed on 9/11 finally got a measure of justice.
As the news slowly spread that night, a crowd spontaneously gathered in front of the White House. “How nice,” I thought initially. “Commemorating significant events with others helps build a sense of community.” Many of us sought out each other for comfort on the day of the 9/11 attacks nearly a decade ago, so it’s fitting we also share the capture of the plot’s mastermind.
My sense of satisfaction, however, soon turned to nagging discomfort as the crowd began smiling, waving flags, dancing and chanting, “USA, USA!” For good measure, they also sang lyrics from the old 1969 Pop song “Na, Na, Na, Hey, Hey, Kiss Him Goodbye.”
In short, it was a party atmosphere. The crowd acted the same as if its favorite team just won the NCAA championship. This sense of revelry struck me as inappropriate; just as I thought it was in poor taste when some people attending President Obama’s inauguration began singing the tune while President Bush was boarding a helicopter to leave the White House, so too is it to celebrate boisterously when someone is killed — no matter how abominable the person was.
I went to bed around 1:30 a.m. Monday, hoping that more sensible reactions would prevail once people had a time to reflect and place the event into context. I was overly optimistic.
While checking my email the next morning, I saw many over-the-top reactions from people on Facebook, including several from otherwise rational folks.
After one friend posted, “I don’t think I can really revel in anyone’s death … even his,” the comment was met with rebukes like, “That makes me wanna throw up in my mouth a little bit. Considering he is responsible for the death of nearly 3,000 American civilians. As an American and military spouse I am rejoicing!”
Oh, like those crowds in a few parts of the Arab world who danced, cheered and waved flags on Sept. 11, 2001? You know, the same displays we found so outrageous and disrespectful? After all, those people felt justified because they were getting revenge for the thousands of innocent people they believe were killed over the years by U.S. foreign policy.
And what about the 109,924 deaths of Iraqi civilians documented since the launch of our war there in 2003? (The number actually is believed to be much higher based on records released by WikiLeaks, but we’ll stick with the conservative figure.)
I’ve written it before, but it bears repeating: Imagine if the roles were reversed. How would you feel if the United States was invaded under false pretenses “for its own good” and we suffered such high civilian casualties? It wouldn’t be tolerated; we would be the insurgents.
Revenge is an endless feedback loop.
Later on Monday, another person wrote, “Dear Debbie Downers: It’s a good, symbolic day for America.” The implicit message, of course, is let’s not think deeply about what’s happened, just enjoy it.
But there’s nothing wrong with reflection and dissenting voices. This frenzied nationalism and “we must all feel and think the same way” mentality is what gave us the PATRIOT Act, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo in the months after 9/11. Excuse me if I moderate my reaction.
Then there’s the circular logic employed by some far-right conservatives.
When a liberal friend posted online he was glad that bin Laden was killed, a conservative replied, “I am glad to see you ... become more supportive of our military in defending this country. It seemed for like, ohhhh, about a period of 8 years, that anything the military did was wrong, bad, illegal in your eyes.”
Let’s put an end to that myth. When most people say “supportive of our military,” it really means “support anything it does.” The military is merely a tool to carry out the policies of our elected leaders. Objecting to that policy doesn’t translate to not supporting the troops.
After the liberal noted he also has opposed many of Obama’s policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, the conservative wrote that he meant the “eeire (sic) silence of the anti-Iraq, Afghan, Gitmo protestors that I had to listen to for so many years.”
That’s how far-right ideologues think: Liberals are criticized for being inappropriate if they mention their misgivings about foreign policy, and they’re criticized for being hypocrites if they don’t. For the ideologues, it’s a black-and-white, all-or-nothing world. That attitude isn’t only ludicrous, it’s dangerous. And it’s also the way murderous thugs like bin Laden think.
After reading all the ugliness online, I came across a column written by Dr. Pamela Gerloff, a counselor, on The Huffington Post that helped pinpoint the nagging feelings I was having.
“ ‘Celebrating’ the killing of any member of our species — for example, by chanting ‘USA! USA!’ and singing “The Star Spangled Banner” outside the White House or jubilantly demonstrating in the streets — is a violation of human dignity,” Gerloff wrote. “Regardless of the perceived degree of ‘good’ or ‘evil’ in any of us, we are all, each of us, human. To celebrate the killing of a life, any life, is a failure to honor life’s inherent sanctity.”
She added, “Plenty of people will argue that Osama bin Laden did not respect the sanctity of others’ lives. But I say, ‘So what?’ One aspect of being human is our ability to choose our own behavior; more specifically, our capacity to return good for evil, love for hate, dignity for indignity … A more appropriate response to his killing would be to mourn the many tragedies that led up to his violent death, as well as the violent deaths of thousands in the attempt to eliminate him from the face of the Earth.”
Instead of acting like hormonal teenagers, let’s try to act like adults when dealing with serious issues like war and peace, life and death. There’s a popular bumper sticker that reads, “Just because you think of something doesn’t mean you have to believe in it.” In situations like this one, it should be amended to, “Just because you feel a certain way doesn’t mean you have to express it.”
There is a difference between justice and vengeance, and being bloodthirsty is never a virtue.
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