Ok, so a few words on whether or not you’re allowed to be happy that Osama Bin Laden is dead. Because it appears as if relief may be the ceiling of the Officially Sanctioned Emotions. Or maybe it only reaches somber reflection, in which case my Twitter feed has a bigtime reduction in Life Points coming.
The day after OBL was killed in what sounds like an operation combining the best and worst elements from Michael Bay & James Cameron (True Lies, not Titanic), a good portion of the Internet was already clucking about the legions of wildly celebrating idiots that appeared everywhere from CNN to Al Jazeera to the Citgo Store down the street. The night of the announcement, this was the public face of America’s reaction: a bunch of probably drunk
college kids yutes getting their jingoistic kicks and pretending like we won the World Cup in a world where we actually cared about the World Cup. Yes, it was crass and gave me a severe case of the douche chills. And this coming from someone who was, at least for some portion of the evening, unabashedly happy that OBL was killed.
But why do so many seem surprised or disappointed that this is what ended up happening in certain corners of the country and that this is what the TV news networks chose to show? Or, rather, why are people mistaking what the TV networks are showing for an accurate depiction of the country’s reaction? Or even neglecting the possibility that it might be perfectly acceptable or simply realistic for people to be happy momentarily and only afterwards transition into the business of figuring out what to do next. Or maybe people are capable of having multiple conflicting emotions at once and yet only outwardly expressing one at a time at the risk of looking like an Edvard Munch painting. Also strange to me is that less than a day after the single most accomplished terrorist of all time is murdered by a bunch of Americans, so many were in a race to winnow down the spectrum of permissible reactions to approximately 4.
I’m even more baffled that folks opining in the aftermath were turning these scenes of jubilation/patriotism/nationalism/whathaveyou into straw men about how people who are happy or even merely relieved for some non-trivial period of time must feel that OBL’s death represents the End of Terrorism and boy look at how impossibly blinkered and stupid everybody is. Because of course if you truly had a nuanced view of things, you couldn’t possibly be happy for any longer than it takes for a video camera to confirm that that is indeed a smile and not a pre-emetic spasm.
Dancing on graves is not my style (although I am not a categorical non-grave dancer), but I think that it’s possible to have a visceral, true reaction to Bin Laden’s death that isn’t particularly dignified but also not worthy of condemnation. Which is not to say that everybody celebrating is even capable of having a thoughtful reaction to a controversial historical event. But I don’t care. Kantian philosopher Christine Korsgaard is quoted in an NPR piece as saying that “[i]f we have any feeling of victory or triumph in the case, it should be because we have succeeded in disabling him — not because he is dead.” This unhelpful distinction strikes me as precisely the sort of thing an academic philosopher would say when talking to NPR. Talking about the morality of emotions in this case is just not very interesting. And of course all the usual caveats apply about how our emotions are conditioned and we have some control over shaping that blah blah blah. Talk to me when somebody’s actually done something reprehensible. And no, swaddling oneself in the American flag and screeching out Team America: World Police references does not count.
And in fact I actually wouldn’t begrudge these people their Death Dancing at all were it not for the fact that Bin Laden’s death is a bit beside the point at this late stage and also inextricably bound up in all the other War on Terror bullshit of the past decade. But one can recognize what it means or doesn’t mean when situated in historical context and also be relieved and even glad that the dude got a double tap to the head. I will disagree with those that say it’s meaningless (looking at you unnamed Wallace-l contributor) by asserting that nobody has any idea what it means, really. Although Dan Drezner takes a shot at describing quite forcefully why it might mean quite a lot while still preserving the SEO benefits of not having the word “fuck” in your title.
George Bush’s simplistic Manichaean view of the world did quite a bit to fracture the country and poison our capacity for political dialogue. Osama’s death enabled, however briefly, the flickering re-imagination of a national community, of a kind of collective identity. Nobody who was on Twitter on Sunday could deny this. This does not mean that everybody felt the same way, but that night everybody felt something. Together. And the range of feelings when something of this magnitude happens, after what has seemed like the world’s longest case of retribution blue balls, is vast and within broad limits largely beyond reproach. I just don’t find a few hours of blood lust indulgence every generation or two all that troubling. And I don’t think it’s a slippery slope to being just like our enemies, as David Sirota’s popular piece seems to imply.
So what does it mean? Nobody has any idea, because what it means is partially up to us. Or more accurately maybe Barack Obama. He can’t control whether this assassination galvanizes Al Qaeda into retaliation or even whether Pakistan and the US drift further apart or manage to use this as an excuse to repair frayed ties. But America craves symbolic victories. Whether Obama will harness this one and actually end the War on Terror in all its freedom-sapping, innocent-killing glory is up in the air. Only time will tell. In the meantime, we’ll all be at the mercy of our sanctimonious Facebook friends, who will lie in wait hoping for any small expression of forbidden emotion in order to smugly assert their moral superiority by passive aggressively posting quotations of dubious provenance.