Reacting to a morally cumbersome death: Osama bin Laden

The scene that unfolded last night in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and the reaction to the news today, will be remembered for a very long time. The death of Osama bin Laden has arrested the attention of the planet, and his demise stands as the single most crucial plot point to spring up in a story that began a little under ten years ago. Last night, alongside three friends, I watched a live-feed online of Obama’s address to the nation. I was struck by a feeling I imagine was echoed in many, many others – I was overwhelmed by the recognition of the rhetorical gravity of what was happening, but I was uncertain what exactly it meant.
For the past 24 hours or so, people everywhere have grappled with that very question. Some have made lengthy arguments about the impact bin Laden’s death will have on the foreign policies of practically any given nation. They have questioned whether this will amount to a substantive change in the so-called war on terror, or whether it will prove itself to be little more than a change of guard. They have debated with passion about the most appropriate reaction to a death like this one, and many others have opined on the symbolic versus literal value in the death of only one man. There is a sliding scale of credibility in the limitless world of news commentary, but the genre itself invokes a sort of pressure to possess an almost preternatural insight, and to package stories immediately. It seems to me that many people in the world want this event to be a finite one. We want its implications to be tidy. One thing that I remember about September 11, 2001’s immediate aftermath was the wave of unbridled patriotism it inspired in my country. Stores sold out of American flags. We started saying the Pledge of Allegiance again. New Yorkers stopped acting like jackasses for nearly a week. It was as if the country was rising to a challenge with a sense of coherent resolve. Maybe I am wrong – I was only 15, and it is difficult to remember my immediate feelings about the 9/11 attacks without peppering them with the cynicism about the ways that bad politics and planning so deeply eroded that feeling in the years since. The death of Osama bin Laden does not set off an obvious shared narrative in the way that his despicable acts did. How does it fit into the story?
I have to believe that the people who so fiercely celebrated Osama bin Laden’s death today must have been led astray by their desire to infuse this moment with a sense of victory. I have to believe that they misinterpreted their emotions. I think that they wanted to laud the events as a conclusion of 9/11, as if the crimes have been avenged. This is a mistake, and I hope that those who danced, hollered, whooped, fist-bumped, cheered, gloated, hooted or otherwise acted like nationalist frat boys come to their senses and regard their off-the-cuff emotional response to this historical milestone as one which did not befit the spirit of the day. It is not a joyous occasion, nor is it an excuse for a pub crawl. This needed to be done. The death had to happen. I am someone who objects to the death penalty, and I do not believe that a state should have the right to pass judgment on an individual on such a cosmic level as to deem him or her unworthy of life. I have always believed this. But I don’t believe it today. Bin Laden’s was a case that transcends national borders, and his was a wrong that transcends my ethical system. I believe that his death was the only possible result of his capture, and so I concede to this instance of ideological inconsistency.
Yes, Osama bin Laden’s death was an act of justice. But there is no moral tit for tat here. His crimes have set off so much sorrow in the world; he destroyed so much. We must experience this moment with a grace becoming of a nation that has suffered immeasurable loss, but has also been productive in its grief. I hope that bin Laden’s end does provide closure to anyone in the world who has been harmed by extremism, wherever it exists. And for those who are inclined to high-five and revel in this victory as if it topped off a championship game, please consider the fact that the lives of the victims of terrorism are worth more than the scalp of a single villain.
I have little to say right now about the international political implications of this event, and journalists and analysts around the globe can do better at that than I can. I do, however, suspect that the way Earth’s story unfolds from here will have much to do with the way that America carries itself in the coming weeks. If it is true that Osama bin Laden’s death is largely symbolic - then let us ascribe to it a meaning of peace, worthy of the sacrifices that contributed to it.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for your comments. I don't think it's something I'm brave enough to address on my blog, but the overwhelming coverage of cheering college students truly made me sad.