All over my facebook today, people are citing the fake MLK quote about celebrating death and making quite disparaging remarks toward the people who are expressing pleasure with the fact Osama Bin Laden is dead. I’ve wanted to engage in a conversation about it, but given both the fact it’s not in one place, and Facebook’s comment length limit makes an adequate reply difficult, this seems a better place.
First of all, I think there’s a lot of naivety around the reality of international relations, international law and the nature of modern conflict. The Obama administration made a conscious decision to minimize collateral damage in Abbottabad by sending in ground troops (as opposed to a drone strike). When the officers arrived and were fired upon, is it really realistic to expect them not to fire back? This may not be war as we’ve known it before- it’s a war with non-state actors, a decentralized war- but it’s still war. And when you’re dealing with non-state actors who have fundamentally changed our understanding of warfare, who have adopted a strategy of extreme violence toward civilians, it’s impossible to employ old school diplomacy.
Secondly, I think there’s a kind of reflexive anti-Americanism that much of the world is prone to fall into. In the class I’m teaching this semester, Americanism and Anti-Americanism, we talk about anti-Americanism as a prejudice, a tendency to approach the US in a certain way, which is often negative. Too often, empathy and compassion are put aside when we talk about a hegemon, as though their perspective is unworthy of the same concern we show for the citizens of less powerful nations. Rather than judging people for their emotions, I think we should try to understand them. And that includes Americans.
Accusing people of “celebrating death” is, I think, an oversimplification that lacks nuance, empathy, and understanding. If one sees the death of Osama as a symbolic, if not actual, end to the War on Terror, it is entirely understandable that people would want to celebrate. Sure, some are probably celebrating the fact Osama is dead, but more- many more- would be celebrating the sense of relief, a symbolic end to a tumultuous decade, the endurance of America. Bin Laden was someone who desperately, passionately, wanted to destroy the United States. Celebrating the fact the nation endures despite that is, I feel, more than worthy of celebration.
This reader’s response from Andrew Sullivan’s blog was, I think, quite eloquent:
I keep reading a lot of accusations from well-meaning critics who say that those Americans who chant “USA!” and wave the flag, or are even just plain happy right now are somehow “celebrating death”. (I’m particularly irked by David Sirota’s finger-wagging piece). Going beyond the obviously flawed comparison of a terrorist celebrating the death of an innocent civilian to innocent civilians “celebrating the death” of a terrorist, I feel an urgent need to point this out: We are not celebrating death.
A mass-murdering and very powerful lunatic is dead, yes, but our joy just comes from the simple fact that he is not going to kill anymore. His cohorts will, yes. Like-minded fanatics may continue to do so as well, sure. But this one – the biggest terrorist there is – will not.
If the news had come in that he was no longer dead, but instead had just been put on a rocket and shot into space, or simply been captured and brought back to stand trial, we would STILL have been singing in the streets and cheering on our nation and our armed forces and Obama and … well just cheering because what the hell else have we had to cheer about in the last 10 years? A 1-1 draw with England in the World Cup?
I’m a progressive Buddhist. I abhor all violence, as it is the perpetuation of suffering. I don’t celebrate the death of Osama Bin Laden any more than I’d celebrate the death of anyone. It is sad that it came to this, but what I do celebrate is the look in the cheering faces of my friends and family, my fellow Americans and my fellow human beings around the world, who for the first time since the fall of the Berlin Wall can all find a few moments of peace and rest from a world overflowing with anxiety and fear. And I don’t care much that this massive catharsis just so happens to come at the expense of a dead bogeyman.
Finally, I think it’s easy, in Australia, to occupy a moral high ground. We are remarkably safe, by global standards, and enjoy a remarkable standard of living. It’s easy to forget that this is the case largely because we enjoy American protection- ANZUS is a real, great, and very important thing. The world is an often dark and complicated place, international law is constantly being challenged to take into account new realities, and there are times when the right thing is incredibly difficult to discern. I’m reminded of that part of The West Wing, where Leo and the President are talking about the assassination of Shareef, and they discuss the absence or presence of moral absolutes- the whole Shareef series of episodes illustrates, I think, the complexity of this kind of situation.
International politics is tricky business. Modern war is even more so. It’s tragic, and it’s horrible.
But I don’t think there’s any problem in saying that yes, the US got this one right.