Bin Laden Is Dead: Cue the Cheerleaders

Playing Bin Laden's game is a losing proposition

Posted May 04, 2011


There are lessons in the Bin Laden spectacle, not for his followers--fanatics by definition are not big on learning--but for us. Contrary to popular sentiment, the lessons do not speak very well of us. For our president, it was a missed opportunity.

What will remain, like a foul aftertaste, as this violent episode fades into memory, are the images of Americans celebrating in front of the white house: Cheerleaders hoisted up on shoulders, people in trees, flags waiving, chants of "USA! USA!" You would have thought the Nationals won the MLS title.

The rejoicing is, of course, understandable. We are all wired to feel the intuitive fairness of an eye-for-an-eye. We are all wired to rejoice at our enemy's fall. Our romance with our violent side is deep and abiding. Human beings love the feeling of power. Like all organisms, we want to survive. The powerful are less likely to die. And killing is the ultimate power.

Bin Laden is an easy target for our rage: a murderer; a terrorist; a strange, alien, and ghostly figure; a symbol of the 9-11 trauma. Naturally we rage at those who traumatize us. We want to hurt them back.

But as Nelson Mandela once said, seeking revenge is like drinking poison and hoping that your enemy will die. The revenge impulse, when not managed, poisons an individual and a society from within, because it defines healing in terms of more hurt. It defines victory as pulling harder on the rope in the eternal game of tug-of-war. Real healing and victory are achieved when we let go of the rope altogether.

After all, our whole system of justice and governance is designed to keep in check the vicious impulse for eye-for-an-eye justice, lest we all end up blind. It is the ability to act from reason, consider the broader perspective and remain true to the principles of humane conduct rather than the pull of erupting emotion that separates the rule of law from the rule of the mob.

The cheering crowds, as the self-proclaimed face of American patriotism, were a disturbing spectacle. It's never encouraging to see humans dancing because the blood of others has been shed. Many of the celebrators, good Judeo-Christians that they are, could have benefitted from reading again the verse about not rejoicing when your enemy falls.

What the Bin Laden operation symbolizes is precisely the opposite of what the tree climbers and flag waivers think it does. First, it flaunted again the US's tendency to think that its might puts it above international law. Might makes Right is the lesson other nations are gleaning from this. They are sure to use it to our dissatisfaction when they become mighty.

Moreover, the revenge narrative, while alluring and photogenic, is inherently futile. If you get in the game of revenge killings, you're bound to lose many rounds, because the game goes on and on. When we kill them we rejoice and fancy ourselves patriots. When one of ours gets killed next--and our enemies rejoice and dance in their town square and waive their flags--we look on them in horror and call them barbarians. Well, we can't have it both ways.

The idea of killing as entertainment and public spectacle is a hallmark of an uncivilized society. For a civilized society, killing is something to be undertaken with great reluctance, aversion, and sorrow.

With certain games, just entering the arena is itself a losing proposition. Every time we kill, we are reminded that we are still in the game of killing, which is, ultimately, a game of despair, pain, and futility. True, you may be dragged in against your will. But you should not rejoice while you're in there--only when you get out. War victory is not something to celebrate. Only peace is cause for true celebration.

Americans pumped their fists and waved flags when they heard about the death of their great enemy. But, at the time of his death, Bin Laden the operational leader had been rendered quite irrelevant. He existed mainly as a symbol, and his symbolic resonance will not be diminished by his death. If anything it's likely to grow as he's elevated by his followers into martyrdom. Operationally, Al Qaeda also has lost its relevancy in terms of the processes and forces that are most potent in shaping the future of American security and prosperity. So this whole anti-Bin Laden, anti-al-Qaeda operation--in light of recent developments in the Middle East and elsewhere--seems retrograde, a misplaced preoccupation with the minutiae of symbolic revenge. It appears once again that we are fighting the wrong war. Nothing to celebrate about that either.

As for the president, some of the responsibility falls on his shoulders. True, in the immediate, political context, Obama showed leadership and guts. One can only imagine what would have been said about him had something gone wrong. But as someone so conscious of the power of words and so agile in their deployment, surely his speech could and should have struck a different tone. Surely he should have said something about this somber hour, about it not being a time for celebration but for reflection. Surely he could have said something about how we should look to be guided by our better angels, how we should not fall prey to our baser instincts, our taste for blood and brute force and stark revenge. About our determination, on this night, not to be reduced to the crass emotionalism of keeping score. Because succumbing to those instincts undermines our long-term security much more than any terrorist. Control of those impulses elevates us above the terrorists' nihilist vision of the world.

Because, as Obama surely knows, revenge assassination is not what's great about America; it is not what American justice should be all about; it is not what should bring us together as a nation. He could have guided the mob toward a higher plane, could have defined our nationalism in broader, more humane, more civilized terms--in other words, he could have extracted the U.S. from Bin Laden's bloody game. Alas, the President's better instincts betrayed him in this historic moment. He went populist and gave in to the crude nationalist vision of killing as ‘justice,' killing as ‘closure,' and killing as an emblem of American ‘can-do' spirit. Killing, by definition, is not--and should not be--any of these things. It was not the finest hour of Obama's presidency.