Last night, we all learned that after ten years, Osama bin Laden had finally been killed – “brought to justice,” in the cliched terms of the equally cliché War on Terror. Twitter was…well, all atwitter about the news, which broke first on that very platform, once again beating the media outlets to the punch (and ensuring that the next time Twitter has some wild-ass rumor explode, it will be unquestioningly accepted as truth – a lesson the twitterverse never seems to learn). And within an hour, celebrations were breaking out across the country. At a Phillies/Mets game, outside the White House, in Times Square – people waving flags, jubilantly holding up a finger or victory sign, and chants of “USA! USA! USA!” rang out spontaneously. Towns across the country reported outbreaks of fireworks.
I, too, was enjoying the evening and the news. Retweeting profound/important/funny tweets, reading whatever I could find on it, and just generally glad that this mass murderer had finally met his deserved end. But when CNN cut to a shot of the crowd outside the White House, I was stopped in my tracks. Watching this crowd chanting, singing, arms with victory signs thrust skyward, waving flags, the joy and glee on their faces…I couldn’t help but think back to how outraged we were on 9/11 when footage of celebrations in Palestine and elsewhere in the Islamic world were aired – crowds chanting, singing, victory signs, flags, joy, glee. It was the same scene, reversed. The joy, seen in this new light, felt inappropriate and sad, if not repugnant.
This response, and the propriety of it, are of course being hotly debated on Facebook today, and I’m sure the media will pick up on it and make it issue one dividing the political parties, as they are wont to do. But it truly is worth discussion, and in fact requires examination. Why did we respond this way? Was it the right response? How should we feel, and how should we express that?
There is, of course, no answer to these questions. How should we express it? How should we feel? That’s too personal. We have the right to feel and express our feelings any way that works for us, within reason of course (we lack the right to burn down a mosque in celebration). But the right to do something doesn’t make it, in the word’s other sense, “right”. And to understand this, we need to step back to September 11th, and the response of Muslims celebrating our tragic loss.
What happened on September 11th didn’t come out of nowhere; it wasn’t something that couldn’t have been predicted, nor was it done because someone “hated our freedoms”, or any such nonsense. There’s no point enumerating every claim of al Qaida or listing all the perceived wrongs done to the Islamic world by America, but suffice to say a perception exists, backed up by some fact, that there has been a negative impact on the Middle East due to America’s foreign policy. The amount of aid given to Israel is often pointed to, CIA or military support for unpopular leaders in the region, and in various military actions, the loss of Muslim life is often laid at the feet of America – often wrongly, but sometimes with truth.
The nations and people who hold this perception are largely unable to fight back against any real or imagined threat, and are rarely welcomed to the table to seek diplomatic redress, and so feel helpless, threatened, and injured without cause by a country that seems, to them, to be bent on empire. And just as we often see them as a single unified bloc of religious zealots, so they see us. While we laugh at Glenn Beck’s “caliphate clues”, they see the same types of “clues” telling them we’re trying to destroy their religion and replace it with ours (the evangelical missions that are often in the area, btw, are no help in dispelling this notion).
This is a very truncated, simplistic explanation of the Islamic world’s view of America prior to 9/11, and I’m admittedly leaving out some of the kooky “Satan” stuff that their actual zealots were pushing (and continue to push). Whether it’s right or not is beside the point. Whether their perception was/is based in total fact is beside the point. The point is, this is how we were viewed on September 11th.
So, in that light, celebrations by Muslims in the Middle East on September 11th begin to make sense. Like we did last night, they felt that some measure of justice had been done to a country that had been directly and indirectly responsible for the deaths of many thousands of their people. In their eyes, the attacks on the towers in Manhattan weren’t a murder of thousands of innocent people, it was a justified attack inside a country with whom they were at war – and remember, Osama bin Laden had indeed declared war on the United States long before the attacks that day. It wasn’t an unprovoked attack, it was a retaliatory strike. It was a response to American involvement in Beirut, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Palestine…the list goes on.They were the good guys, and justice had been done.
But how were their celebrations received here? What about our perceptions? We had just suffered a tragedy unlike anything we’d dealt with before. Our loss and anger was profound, and seeing those celebrations was a thunderbolt to our national psyche, adding insult to the injury we were still attempting to process. We were the good guys, why did they do this? And how dare they celebrate our pain?
I don’t know about you, but I still vividly recall my anger that day. And especially the indignant rage I felt, watching their celebrations. Nor have I forgotten my outrage at seeing our citizens – whether soldiers, mercenaries, missionaries or members of the media – abused, dragged through streets, set afire, decapitated.
So Now What?
I am largely in favor of peace and non-violence, but I have always supported our military action in Afghanistan. The people who attacked us were based there. And I never believed there was any possibility bin Laden would be captured alive, and I’ve never been sorry for a moment for the fate he would, and eventually did, face. Vengeance aside, from a national security standpoint he couldn’t be allowed to come to trial and continue wielding his power from a prison cell. And I’m not sorry now that it’s happened. My views on peace and non-violence allow room for some people to, no matter how bad it may sound, get what’s coming to them. For my peaceful readers, at least give me some grace by knowing it takes bin Laden-level evil to cross that line for me.
But when I saw the celebrations last night, I thought…aren’t we better than this? Aren’t we better than them, those people who so dishonored our dead? Must we dishonor theirs? At the same time, I see in the faces of my fellow Americans the same thought Palestinians had on September 11th – we are the good guys, and justice has been done.
I think there is no clear answer. Intellectual issues are often, for any human, overshadowed by emotion. And there is no question that this is an emotional time for the entire world, just as September 11th was emotional. I believe, ultimately, that there is no “must” or “should” about it. The best we can do is try to understand, accept, and know that there is always another view – another perception, another way of seeing our actions.
I was happy to hear of bin Laden’s death, and if I was in DC, probably would have joined the crowd celebrating outside the White House. But on sober reflection, I hope people are prepared to not be surprised when the Islamic world is…not entirely appreciative of our reaction to this event. The death of bin Laden will provoke some calls for retaliation, but ultimately most Muslims want this nonsense to end as much as we do – those calls will come from the usual cadre of zealots and wackadoos, and frankly I don’t think their recruitment would be helped.
But I do wonder if the images of our celebrations might not help their recruitment. Just as Christians, if you look at it religiously, or Americans if you look at it as a nation, may disagree with someone inside their group, they still don’t appreciate someone outside the group bringing harm to that someone and then celebrating it.
Blame America First Crowd?
Yeah, I know. Many conservatives will read this, or anything questioning our actions or taking a thoughtful look at the underpinnings of the September 11th attacks, and see only an America-hatin’ blame America first terrorist sympathizer, who thinks we got what we deserved. That’s okay. If you’re dim enough to think that, you haven’t read all the way through this anyway. But the reality is, it isn’t about blaming America. It’s about understanding and trying to find a different way, trying to find a way to prevent this from happening again and again.
Reality is a bitch. We don’t always look our best. The bad guy isn’t always evil – sometimes just misunderstood, or stupid, or just broken. Grey areas reign supreme in reality, and that makes it hard for us; humans crave black and white. September 11th was a heinous crime, and we didn’t deserve it – but we have to understand where it came from to prevent a repeat. We are a nation of immense heart and – to quote George Bush’s favorite term – resolve. But we can and should also be a wise nation. And wisdom requires understanding and facing perception, and constantly seeking to improve.
Simply chanting USA! USA! and repeating that we’re the best nation on earth isn’t improvement. It’s exceptionalism, which is too often the enemy of improvement, and always the enemy of wisdom.
Yesterday brought us good news. But we can do better.