Americans should reflect upon the meaning of Osama bin Laden's death
OSAMA BIN Laden is dead, killed along with several of his associates by a Navy SEAL team inside his Pakistani hideaway. His killing removes an undoubtedly evil man who, if he had become increasingly irrelevant in recent years, nevertheless remained a potent symbol of opposition to the United States. We should be glad that he is gone and thankful to his killers who risked their lives for this success.
And yet, the American response to the news of bin Laden's death has been one of unseemly celebration and the worst kind of jingoistic hubris. The crude chanting of "U-S-A!" at sports games ; the visible excitement of television news anchors, making a mockery of their objectivity; the festival atmosphere of crowds rejoicing in the streets, evidently shared by Condoleezza Rice, who declared the news to be "absolutely thrilling" - these are symptoms of a callousness and an overconfidence that are morally troubling and practically damaging. Watching a CNN reporter compare Bin Laden's death to the killing of Hitler or Mussolini, one was staggered by the swaggering, nationalistic bravado that could produce such an equation. On the other hand, for unflappable capitalistic self-importance, it would be difficult to match Warren Buffett's off-hand comment: "I don't think this is a big market factor."
The aforementioned responses are, in some ways, understandable. In recent years, the American mood has been depressed, soured and lacking in high points. With little respite from economic slump, viciously futile political competition and seemingly interminable military adventuring abroad, one might reasonably leap at the chance for an outburst of national pride. For a nation constantly troubled by murmurings of its own decline, there could be few things so cathartic as the crushing of an old enemy in a resolute and righteous display of power.
Let the point not be slighted that Osama bin Laden was just such an enemy, who deserved his fate. The massive bloodshed he had inspired - both of Americans and many others - was an appalling record of senseless hatred. It is difficult to justify execution under any circumstances, but surely Bin Laden would have merited the death penalty had he been captured alive. Despite this, it makes the blood run cold to think of the public fever that would have surrounded Bin Laden's trial in the United States. One only can imagine something like a medieval mob - on a national scale - cheering on the executioner while some hapless traitor was hung, drawn and quartered before their eyes.
Indeed, has this imagined picture been so far from the case? The near-universal American elation at his death – unthinkingly exuberant or full of great-power braggadocio – seems to spring from that same age-old love of revenge. In its basic moral content, this is essentially an atavistic revival of the impaling of criminals' heads above the town gates. "Look," it says, "this is what comes to those who do us ill." In more recent centuries, the punitive expeditions of European colonial powers in Africa, steaming into the interior in their armoured gunboats to put down restless tribes, come to mind. While Bin Laden is not the same, his death has brought out similar impulses.
The basic premise of these impulsive responses to the killing is the rightful might of the United States. At the moment, we would do well to maintain a sense of perspective. The most elite, highly-trained and superbly equipped forces of the American military, acting upon ten years of intelligence-gathering by the world's most all-seeing security apparatus, have managed at last to eliminate one old terrorist hiding out in a mansion in Pakistan. This is hardly a testament to national power.
As we will no doubt be reminded in the coming days by the generals and spymasters, whose War on Terror depends on this fact, those actually responsible for recent threats and attacks against the United States remain at large. Bin Laden's death, despite its symbolic value for Americans, will do little or nothing to change the situation and may well spur retaliatory attacks. The Obama administration recognizes this, and so Americans have been treated to the bizarre juxtaposition of the president playing to the excited national mood, while at the same time striving to convey that Bin Laden was given a proper Muslim burial - albeit at sea - in an effort to maintain the newly respectful American façade. Jingoism, before even considering its moral detestability, will do no good for the reputation or for the security of the United States.
We have killed Osama bin Laden. The man responsible for the September 11 attacks, for the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa and for many other atrocities besides, is dead and gone. This ought to be a moment of quiet thankfulness, of reflection upon the causes and mourning for the victims of evil. Instead, it is in danger of becoming an occasion of disgusting and dangerous triumphalism, of cocksure pride that blinds us to the issues at stake. Let it not be so.
David Wilson is a second-year College student.