Celebrating the Death of a Human Being

In the wake of Osama Bin Laden's death, several pundits have spoken out against what they perceive to be a brutish response from many Americans. What do such celebrations say about any society, even one that has been profoundly wronged by someone as despicable as Bin Laden?

I linked to this earlier, but it's worth mentioning again: Alexis Madrigal took to the streets on the eve of the announcement and had this to report:

In the wee hours of Monday morning, I did hear a half-assed version of "America the Beautiful" sung once. A "Thank you troops! Thank you troops!" chant momentarily popped into existence, too. But there were no transcendent moments, no times when the crowd united to consider the greater significance of a free society's battle with its enemies and all the costs and victories thereof. Perhaps people did their own private accounting, but as a public, we were loud and boorish and silly. We treated the killing of a man who promoted the killing of thousands of Americans like a game with no consideration of the past or future costs. In other words, on night one in our nation's capital, Osama bin Laden's death did not change the face of the American body politic. We'll see if it has a greater impact on our politics.

Joan Walsh took the opportunity to reflect on how much we've lost in Bin Laden's pursuit:

After years of Catholic school, I am constitutionally unable to feel joyous about anyone being killed, but I got close tonight with bin Laden. He killed thousands of innocent people -- and again, it was that incomparable American tableau: Muslims, Jews, Catholics; waiters, firefighters, investment bankers; gays and straights; mothers and fathers of every race. For months, reading the New York Times "Portraits of Grief" felt like a responsibility of American citizenship; every day you'd find someone almost exactly like you, but also as different from you as possible -- except they also loved Bruce Springsteen (a lot of them did) or had a child your age or were born on your father's birthday. We saw the beauty and bravery and diversity of America in that tragedy, and I wish it didn't take a tragedy for us to do so.

I also wish this achievement could mean we get our country back, the one before the Patriot Act, before FISA, before rendition and torture and Guantánamo; before we began giving up the freedom and belief in due process that makes us Americans, out of our fear of totalitarians like bin Laden. It won't happen overnight, but I'm going to choose to think this could be a first step.

And Mona Eltahawy describes the scene from Ground Zero:

[I]t was a shock to find hundreds of others had turned that hallowed ground into the scene of a home crowd celebrating an away victory they hadn't attended, the roots of which they were probably not there to experience or were too young to remember.

There was always something sickening about tourists taking pictures of themselves posing in front of that big gaping hole called Ground Zero. "Me at site of mass slaughter, NYC" as holiday photo caption is wrong in every language, surely. It didn't take 10 minutes for the frat party atmosphere to sicken me. Olympic-style chants of "USA! USA!" I could just about take as a freshly minted American, as of Friday. But "Fuck Osama! Ole ole ole!" crushed any ambition of dignity for the thousands killed, many of whom had jumped hundreds of stories to their deaths, their bodies shattered to pieces close to where we stood.

As for me, I didn't really celebrate Bin Laden's death. Despite its temporary comforts, there is something that feels troubling to me about jingoistic chanting in response to the killing of a human being. I can only hope that it may bring some measure of peace to those who have been brutally robbed of it over the course of the past decade.

6 comments :: Celebrating the Death of a Human Being

  1. I feel similar, and agree it is a confusing, conflicting, and difficult position to be in. As someone who was only indirectly affected by 9/11, I will never choose to judge those who were closer to acts themselves; can't understand the feelings or the context, nor will I pretend to.

    Nice use of jingoistic, btw.

  2. my pastor tweeted:

    I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. (Martin Luther King Jr)

  3. My gut response is to say that celebrating death that was clearly morally justified is at worst morally neutral.

    What does make me flinch, though, is when anchors refer to the celebration as "an outpouring of patriotism."

    The long waiting lists to donate blood in the wake of 9/11? That was patriotism. This feels like something more primal than that.

    "Please stop putting words in my mouth." — Martin Luther King, Jr.

  4. I think a very good retrospective on what its taken to get to this point is over at: http://motherjones.com/mojo/2011/05/osama-bin-laden-hunt-stats

    Its hard to say one way or the other what this has really accomplished.

  5. tobor68:in the intrest of getting information out there, I should point out that that quote was by one Jessica dovey"

    http://is.gd/LxyuGV

  6. I am against frat-boyism, mob mentality celebration. Having said that, I just want it to be clear...it's ok to be an American. It's not "uncool" to be patriotic. I mean, we are talking about, as columnist Gene Collier noted: "the demise of the most viciously incorrigible terrorist on the planet."

    I am against the death penalty. I am not a proponent of violence. But I loathe the idea that I can't be prideful, happy, even jubilant (take away the fact that I lived in NYC for 6 years - one of which was during 9/11 and worked within blocks of ground zero) about, again: the demise of the most viciously incorrigible terrorist on the planet.

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