I’ve done a lot of thinking about Osama bin Laden’s death since Monday morning. It’s difficult not to – he’s everywhere. NPR spent two full days talking about virtually nothing else. Attention is being paid in a way it hasn’t since…well, potentially, since 9/11.
My feelings are….mixed. To put it mildly. Even at the very first news of the event, with all the pictures of celebrating citizens in New York and Washington – I wasn’t happy about it. I couldn’t be. My first reaction was shock; like many Americans, I’d long since given up on the idea that he would ever be dead. It was something that rankled and left a bitter taste. As the details came out, the whole thing played out very compellingly like a movie in my mind. I could just see someone playing Obama, say, working out or something when the security forces come to him. The scene plays, he’s towelling off – “So what’s all this about?” (If you hear Obama saying it, it’s kind of awesome).
And then the CIA person or whoever it was flops a manila folder into his sweaty lap, and in a voice like Jack Nicholson says, “We found bin Laden, Mr. President.” (Again, you have to hear Nicholson, or it’s not as cool.)
Anyway, that was the first reaction. The second was one that was, again, on many people’s minds. “So…the war’s over now – right?”
Even when I thought it, I knew it wasn’t, but I clung to the twelve-year old idea I’d had when the war started – “Catch bin Laden, mission accomplished.” That was SUPPOSED to be how things went. Nothing is ever that simple, least-of-all a war. After all, we’re in a war to win “Hearts and minds.” Jesus, we are doomed.
Strategical thoughts aside, I wasn’t….well, I wasn’t happy. Maybe if I were still twelve I would have been happy, because when I was twelve, things were a little more black and white. But I’ve grown since then and my political and social opinions are much more…I suppose the word is complex. Truth be told, it kind of seemed like beneath the celebratory mood, the nation wasn’t THAT happy. Callers to the radio and articles online said, “Well, you know, I hate being happy about anyone being dead – but hey, at least he’s gone.” Even the government said, “A trial would have been better, but he’s better dead than alive.” There were even discussions on why a trial would not have been preferable.
I found that part….tough to swallow. Okay, yes, a trial would have been inelegant and dragged things out – but wasn’t that our duty? We were founded on a set of (sometimes) very high moral principles, and as inconvenient as that can be, it would be a travesty not to follow them. Of course, there was comfort in the idea that his death was necessary. Let’s not pretend, if we had tried him, we would have killed him – but I’m not so jaded and “cool” as to believe a trial is not significant. There was comfort in the idea that his killing was somehow deserved – stories of him using his wife as a human shield, and of course our armed forces would only kill if provoked! These arguments have been used before (think Israel and The Mavi Marmara). The unfortunate part about these arguments – really, excuses – is that they end up not being true. Bin Laden wasn’t armed and he didn’t use his wife as a human shield. I’m not saying he was just sitting on his couch watching some football eating cheese poofs….but he wasn’t AT THAT MOMENT doing direct physical harm to anyone.
So what happened? I don’t think anyone will ever really know, I doubt the Navy SEALS even know. This…doesn’t bother me as much as it maybe should. I thought about Hitler a bit, and how badly we burned to try him, how unsatisfying and heartbreaking it must have been that he should be allowed such an easy road as suicide. Yet, I almost feel that was better. Fewer questions to ask. I’m willing to just let this go, to say, “Okay, he’s gone.” But I feel nothing has really changed.
I had the startling realization on my drive home today that my entire adolescence was spent in a state of war. War used loosely, as I hesitate to call a war with so little national sacrifice (no disrespect intended to our lost servicemen) an actual war. I feel like we haven’t risked enough to be horrified of war and learn its brutal costs. When that happens, then war becomes the Game of Kings, as it was known in the middle ages – and then if we are not ashamed of ourselves, history will be. That is a heavy burden to bear, but luckily we have reality TV and the internet and pop music to distract us from it.
So, okay, let’s say for the moment that all this rambling has a point. The sum of the matter is? I cannot be happy bin Laden is dead. I think a lot of people aren’t. I don’t mean just the conspiracy theorists and extremists who say “Well, if he was ‘buried at sea’, he must not really be dead, Obama is trying to [insert racist comment here, these things really write themselves],” or, “No, that isn’t by Muslim tradition [ignoring the presence of imams and a funeral ‘by the Koran’].” It is hard to gloat over the grave of a dead man, partly because….no matter what “justice” has been done, nothing undoes the damage, and nothing purifies the blackness we’ve created for ourselves in ten years of war. Killing Osama bin Laden does not do that. It is very likely nothing will.
Working with children almost makes things stranger for me – that so many of the kids I work with were babies, or not even born on September 11th, a moment I remember quite clearly. We are doomed to all remember it, when it might almost be better to forget.
I reflected on my commute this morning that 2011 will not go down in history as a boring year. If I believed that the world will end in 2012, I’d have good cause to do so: Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Libya – France and Italy – Japan – the entire South – Palestine and Israel – all of this.
But despite our human folly, the world does continue on. To return to my title, that of “Patriots and Madmen,” the former I think is a particularly meaningless term. One may label one’s self a patriot to gain standing or prove a point, and just as easily be termed a traitor. The same lack of absolutism applies to it as has applied (and does apply) to terrorist, communist and fascist in the past. Nonetheless, I feel myself a patriot – a patriot surrounded in a sea of madmen, who are more eager to believe the president was born in Kenya rather than allow him to be legitimately part black AND elected; who may murder a guilty man, and potentially do right by it; who are more likely to see the judgment of God in all of this than our own stupidity.
God will judge who is right in the end, if anybody is right. The rest of us must continue living as best we know how, for in the face of such confusion and terror, that is the only means of success.