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On "celebrating" death

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.

 

11 thoughts on “On "celebrating" death

  1. I’m sorry but I don’t believe the War on Terror has ended. It’s just a device to keep people scared enough so they don’t care that their freedoms are being taken away. Seriously, some dude in a cave in the middle of some third world country decides he wants bomb the Pentagon and he’s able to do it?! .. nice job guarding one of the most important military installations in the country XD

    Osama’s death and all the crap surrounding doesn’t symbolise hope for freedom or justice or anything of the sorts. On the contrary, it just means that things are going to get worse. Next it will be Gaddafi, then someone else in some far off land and eventually it will probably be Trotsky himself.

    And what’s it all for.. control of a dot. What the world is in need of is some perspective.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pale_Blue_Dot

  2. The true issue is not that they are celebrating, but rather they are celebrating an execution style killing that closes off the possibility of real answers as to what happened in 9/11.

    How is that the supposed mastermind and key figure in terrorism is shot dead rather than held for questioning or made to stand trial?

  3. Weird, Harry, your comment didn’t come through (unless you meant the pingback). I’ve got comments/replies to this, will post when I get a chance, probably after uni tonight.

  4. Harry, I wanted to reply to your comments, and I think the most relevant one is about the extra-judicial nature of Bin Laden’s death- I didn’t make any comment on the burial, and I think Trutherism is a conspiracy- the notion that a court would have ruled that Al Qaeda was not responsible for 9-11 is fantasy, but your middle point had some virtue. The thing is, though, you seemed to have missed the whole point of my post, which is to try to consider the complexity of the situation and the inadequacy of international law to deal with war with non-state actors. It wasn’t addressing the rightness of the action, but rather the rightness of calling the action right. It’s a subtle, yet important, difference.

    Bin Laden was not a common criminal. He was a man without a state who had declared war- literally – on the United States. What do you do when a non-state actor declares war? This is where things get complicated and difficult. The laws of traditional warfare don’t apply, but neither is the criminal code sufficient to address his actions. He is neither a foreign leader with whom the US was at war, nor a criminal committing crimes within US jurisdiction. The legal waters are murky.

    So, if killing Bin Laden was not the right thing to do, what was?

    The US could have had publicly acknowledged support from the Pakistani government for the raid- which could cause two problems. One, it could destabilize an already tenuous domestic political situation, and a failed state with nuclear weapons is definitely not in the world’s best interest. Secondly, there was a very significant possibility Bin Laden would have been tipped off as to the US’s intention, so also ineffective.

    The other argument is that they should not have shot him, but should rather have taken him into custody. There is one very clear and obvious problem with that: the very real likelihood of retaliation and hostage situations. If the United States holds Bin Laden, and a bus full of people is taken hostage and killed when the US refuses to release him, whose responsibility are those deaths? Is direct culpability the only thing of importance? It’s cold, yes, but International Relations decisions are made up of these kind of if/then scenarios and cost benefit analyses. There’s isn’t always a right answer, but there’s often a least wrong one.

    If they arrested him, how would he be tried? Under what code? In which jurisdiction? How could he get a fair trial? By jury? Would there be rules around the permissibility of evidence? If the jury couldn’t convict, would they have to let him go? How exactly would it work? To my understanding, it’s outside the jurisdiction of the ICC

    I don’t just think “oh, bad guy dead, good.” I’ve taken the time to think through the situation and yes, it is murky ethical territory. But much of the world is. Relative morality is not fundamentally bad, and there is absolutely a place for it. In fact, it’s absolutism that denies the real complexity of the world we live in and the difficult nature of the decisions political leaders- and all human beings- must make.

    And this is the thing with international relations: you’re not working with the same kind of rule book you are when you’re talking domestic politics. I absolutely and completely think the United States is wrong in the way they are treating Bradley Manning- there, there is a clear process that should be taking place, and it isn’t, and the Obama administration should be deeply ashamed of their behaviour. It’s unacceptable. But in situations such as these, it’s difficult and it’s complicated, and trying to make it a black/white, right/wrong dichotomy .

    Which brings me to the point I really wanted to make. I didn’t say that they did the right thing. I said that “I don’t think there’s any problem in saying that yes, the US got this one right.” Which means that, given the incredible moral complexity of the issue, I think it’s ok to come out on the side that the US did the right thing. Also, it’s ok to say that they didn’t. I’m yet to hear someone make a convincing case for another course of action, but I’m happy to be convinced if someone can make it. All I’d like is to see people actually interrogating the realities of the situation, rather than getting on their moral high horses and pretending we live in a world that just doesn’t exist.

  5. Daniel, whether or not I’d feel comfortable making the action is utterly irrelevant. I’m very glad important international political actions are not based on whether or not I feel comfortable doing something! Rather, they’re made by a group of people who job it is to interrogate the complexities of a situation and make a judgement.

    I think it’s silly to keep trying to boil this down to yes/no, black/white. It’s complicated. The world is complicated. There isn’t always a simple answer- there isn’t always an answer- and it’s better to, at some point, become comfortable with not knowing, to become comfortable with inconsistency. There is almost always the capacity for a decision to be wrong. There’s a reason soldiers take orders- because it allows rational, thought-out decisions that take into account a multiplicity of factors, made by a group of people over a period of time. It doesn’t rely on the gut feeling of an individual at a point in time.

  6. Whether or not you are comfortable making that decision is totally relevant, the only reason you don’t have to make such a decision is because a convenient little concept called division of labour. I severely doubt whether you’d be able to execute livestock either, but you still eat meat. Again the division of labour allows people the comfort of having not to think about the ramifications of their choices and actions.

    What you’re essentially saying is that it’s better to become a drone who doesn’t think for themselves and just accepts what’s given to them.

    Also, what you’re implicitly saying is that you have no empathy for the soldier who shot Osama or any other soldier who kills anyone in conflict because it’s their job to do it.

    Maybe if normal people put a little more thought and feeling into what political actors are doing both domestically and internationally we might have a few less wars and such.

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