Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Ding, Dong, The Witch Is Dead!

Neil Young--"Hawks and Doves" (mp3)

From their planet perch, they watch the Death Star explode up in the sky into smithereens. A unanimous cheer goes up, for they know that this explosion signifies the end of the empire, and of the Emperor himself, the personification of pure evil. And then the celebration begins. There is drinking, carousing, singing. Cute little Ewoks use the helmets of dead Stormtroopers to make percussion instruments. The dark side of the Force has been obliterated. Good has triumphed over Evil.

Offscreen, everyone in the theater cheers, or at least feels a soaring in their hearts. They know the tragedies of these characters. Over the course of three movies, they have been caught up in this conflict for years. They feel not the slightest bit of remorse for the dead enemy.

Allow me to try to remove my liberal skin for a few moments and to examine our current curious situation from the outside. It's quite a parlor trick to pull off, and I'm not sure I can do it, but here goes: there is a lot of hand-wringing and deep concern and heavy moralizing going on about the celebrations, the real and virtual "high fives," the songs and Facebook posts, the laughter and the lightheartedness that we are experiencing, perhaps even participating in, as a result of Osama bin Laden's death. I am here to say that those qualms and fears are flat-out wrong. It is good for us to celebrate.

The witch is dead! Start the party! To do otherwise is to deny our society, any society, a great, badly-needed catharsis, a potential rejuvenation, a chance for unification. Societies like ours must work to overcome and to banish evil. And they can't do it quietly. They have to shout it to the skies when they have accomplished it. And the world has to know it. Though, admittedly, all of that is easier to do when the evil comes from the outside.

Now, I know that Marcus Aurelius says, "Modest in victory; graceful in defeat." I know that those of our betters, like MLK Jr. and whatnot, have said things like,"The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it." But I don't think this is the time for that thinking. Because I also know that if you beat the Devil, you are allowed to let people know. And you aren't going to beat him by getting into a fiddle contest with him. To overcome evil, we had to destroy it, and there is no way to do that without violence. Osama bin Laden was not an evil that we were going to take into a warm embrace, show what love is, and rehabilitate.

Call me unChristian, if you like, but I believe I am just as Christian as you are, which means I can turn the other cheek, eat some shit that doesn't taste all that good more often than I want to, do unto others with the best of them. But just like you, I can also revert to the Old Testament "eye for an eye" mentality at pretty much the drop of a hat. We all do it when the injustice touches us. And 9/11 touched all of us. I think that if we cannot celebrate the belated, long-desired vanquishing of a palpable enemy, then what exactly is there to celebrate in life?

We live in a world of pissing contests, and, frankly, for years our stream of urine has been a bit thin. It feels good to see it flow like a racehorse's. That gives us bargaining power. While we might wish that things were otherwise, the fact is that when we demonstrate the ability to deal with our foes, that can serve as one signifcant kind of deterrence.

I have a former student, a foreign student, whose reaction the our taking out Osama is outrage--at the fact that we would dare enter another country without their permission to get one of our enemies. I acknowledge his point. But I also see the counterpoint. In the 21st century, a huge stockpile of nuclear weapons is not a deterrence to antagonists who are not countries. But determination is a deterrence, and the realization by those who would do us harm that, if you do, we will come after you no matter where you are for as long as it takes, well, that sends a powerful message. And, frankly, right now, given where bin Laden was hiding out, I'm having a hard time respecting the sovereignty of that nation anyway.

I was watching a documentary on Thomas Jefferson a few nights ago. One of his beliefs, late in life, was that the words of his Declaration would ultimately spread around the world. Two hundred and fifty years later, that hasn't proven to be the case as much as any of us would like. But that dream also isn't dead. And, to me, that means that despite all of our flaws, and there are many, many, many of them, we can't build walls and retreat into ourselves. We have to represent; we have to show what we are capable of. That doesn't necessarily mean violence, but it does mean strength.

Not that I don't have some reservations, some serious ones. I do. I'm not even sure I buy the notion that bin Laden is the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. I'm not sure the attacks were perpretated by religious extremists; in fact, I'm pretty sure they weren't. I still want Guantanamo Bay closed. I still think the war in Iraq was criminally wrong. I'm ready to come home from Afghanistan. But I love the fact that I have a president who reminds us that we are not at war with the Arab world, who can provide us with the umbrella of a reasonable stance. My own opinions, which right now are no more than that, I am willing to put aside in favor of the national benefits of enjoying that the ghost, the spectre, the outlaw, the legend of bin Laden is no more.

Nor do I condone the stupid gestures. But those are up to us, as a society, to handle ourselves. We have to rein those in. Most celebrations, whether over Super Bowl victories or over the death of a terrorist, are bound to contain excessive celebrations and ridiculous, out-of-bounds expressions of nationalism or worse. But focusing on those at the expense of all of us who feel, justified or not, a sense of closure, of relief, even of retribution, misses the point. An awful, awful thing was done to people, to countrymen and women of ours, who did not deserve it.

I know that there are people who know me who will read this and wonder if indeed they do know me at all. The answer is deceptively simple: I'm an American. I'm happy that we seem to have dealt with the person responsible for a lot of suffering on our soil. I celebrate the success of the mission and the fact that none of our men were killed. Does that mean that I buy the whole situation, from 9/11 until now without question? Absolutely not. Wasn't it Jefferson who said, "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance"? I'll take the next watch. No one ever said that was supposed to be simple or black and white. Which is why I'm pulling my liberal skin back on.

Author's Note: it will be interesting to see what, if any, impact the news that Osama was a) not armed, and b) did not use a woman as a human shield has on our perception of this event. In particular, I have to wonder why we did not take him alive.


John said...

I share many of your thoughts on this one; "cathartic" was the first word that came to my mind when I awoke Monday to the news. I'd gone to bed before the announcement the previous night and the pictures of crowds of cheering people, in NYC, especially, I found pretty moving. Somehow the pictures of people texting at the baseball game, receiving and sending the news, struck me differently--a bit gratuitous, somehow. Dunno why.

A friend of ours said yesterday that he found the whole thing sad. As he put it, "bin Laden was made in the image of God and somehow went horribly astray, so even though he did evil things, I find it hard to celebrate the death of someone who started out in God's image." I can see that point, as well, and the two opposing tugs are probably why, like you, I'm more comfortable in my liberal skin.

Billy said...

Give me 100 tries, and I couldn't have written it better or agreed with it more.

I keep thinking of some revised version of Top Gun where Maverick and Iceman land back on the aircraft carrier, having vanquished the enemy and saved the SS Layton from destruction. I see the crew members of the carrier cheering, but Iceman and Maverick hush the crowd, tell their fellow soldiers they should be ashamed of themselves, that no death should be celebrated, that this isn't a joyous occasion.

I see them walking, alone, to the edge of the carrier and throwing their dogtags into the ocean together while the other crewmen walk below decks and keep drinking.

That version of the ending would totally suck.

Like I said. Bob wrote a much better version.

troutking said...

Newsflash: This is not a movie, Star Wars, Top Gun or otherwise.

I guess I don't have a problem with killing bin Laden in and of itself. My problem is celebrating, high fiving and chanting USA. We should take no joy in killing; it is a horrible necessity at best. My main concern is I don't want our war on terror gaining a patina of legitimacy or efficacy from the death of bin Laden. To me, we are still engaged in illegal and immoral wars that are also playing right into the terrorist hands by bankrupting our country. Bin Laden knew he couldn't destroy us, but he could get us to destroy ourselves, which we've obliged. We should have taken the 3 trillion dollars and invented viable alternative energy sources so we don't have to play world cop. People around the world don't hate our freedom, they hate our arrogance, domination and use of 40% of the world's resources as 5% of the world's population. The best thing we can do to bring democracy to the world is to live up to our ideals.

rodle said...

I too am happy the US military was able to nab him. It was an operation to be proud of. And just as I don't mind the Mossad sneaking into countries to kidnap Nazis, I don't have a problem with violating another nation's border to destroy an evil man.

My problem is the idea that we won something. Maverick saved his ships and risked no further attacks. It could take the Empire generations to recover from the loss of the Empire, Darth Vader, and the new Death Star. The Munchkins had true freedom after the Wicked Witch melted away.

In this case, however, the death of bin Laden might be an act of justice for a criminal, but it does nothing to change the current situation at home or abroad. We scored a touchdown but we are still behind in a game that has constantly changing rules.

Tockstar said...

"To overcome evil, we had to destroy it, and there is no way to do that without violence."

This quote pretty much nails why I'm not celebrating. We live in a world filled with evil, hate, and violence. Sometimes, the only way out is to kill. We pursued the best solution in a fallen world full of awful solutions - hardly seems like a reason to run happily into the street. Now, as rodle and trout pointed out, if this meant an end to the war, to all violence, you'd see me waving the biggest big-ass American flag I could find.

Bob said...

I offer Star Wars not as a movie, but as an archtypal societal reaction. Insert Lord of the Rings, stories from the Bible, celebrations at the end of the war (or battle) of your choice, the resignation of Richard Nixon, the beating of Baylor.

More personally, if you have ever celebrated the comeuppance, the got-what-he deserved of anyone you don't think much of, then you have exhibited the exact same behaviors that seem so unpalatable here. It's the same sliding scale, the same human instinct.

I think it is a tendency of liberalism to want to weight the moment, this moment, with so much baggage and hindsight and dread of future doom as to make it unenjoyable. I'm trying to step away from that, just for a moment. What has already happened is unchangeable; what will come, will come.

troutking said...

Randy's point is a good one. What have we won? Are we even winning? This is the appropriate movie reference:

As for the legitimacy of our actions: the war in Iraq resulted in many more deaths than everything bin Laden ever did, let alone just 9/11. Would it be OK for the government in Iraq to swoop in and kill him on US soil? I'm not a complete relativist but I think we have to stop and take a look at how our actions appear to the rest of the world.

Billy said...

@Randy, trout & Tock - I'm no professional historian, but I'm not sure there exists on this planet, in the history of humanity, a battle that ended all battles or a war that ended all wars. You suggest that the struggles were over for the movies you mentioned, but that's only because the movies had to end. Hell, even "Star Wars" has wars after the wars. So if true joy requires waiting for true finality, you're all doomed to a joyless lifetime of Pyrrhic victories and Cubs games.

We did not "win" something; Justice was served. Justice that a teensy minority in the world would even question to be justice. Long and painfully overdue justice that involved wayward and unwise costs and decisions and untold lives, both civilian and military, that plenty of people screwed up royally trying to exact.

For someone like me, who believes there's a chance, a hope, that OBL's death might bring a quicker end to our foreign occupations and a rapid (if temporary) reduction of lost lives in this "War On Terror," I see more than sufficient reason to rejoice.

However, to be useful, I will also provide a link I found interesting and somewhere in the middle of these reactions: From

troutking said...

Your point is a good one, so let me refine mine. I just don't like the celebrating because I don't want this approach to gain more legitimacy. Yes, justice has been served regarding bin Laden in particular. But, in my opinion, justice has not been served by the greater "war on terror". Our incursions into Iraq and Afghanistan have caused many times more deaths than the original attacks, including the deaths of many innocent civilians. Our finances have been destroyed and the burden borne for many years to come. That's not justice.

Tockstar said...

I don't see how killing one guy is serving justice. I'm glad he's gone, but celebrating death just shows how far we have sunk into war.

BeckEye said...

I don't particularly agree with the chanting of "USA, USA" in this case, but I didn't lose anyone close to me (thank God) on 9/11. Many of the people who are running into the streets to celebrate did. The terrorists celebrated the deaths of thousands of people on 9/11. Now, many Americans are celebrating the death of one man who was largely responsible for that. I'm not saying that celebration is right, but who are any of us to say it's wrong?

TommyD said...

Would Jesus celebrate?

Billy said...

@Tommy -- Jesus: (1) wouldn't celebrate; (2) wouldn't write a music blog; (3) wouldn't comment on a music blog.

Does that just about cover the first fraction of reasons why that's a horrible question? It pretty much suggests that every nanosecond of time involved in all of this by all of us is very much Un-Jesus-y.

But if you were joking, it's kinda funny.

TommyD said...

I don't think he would celebrate in public, but maybe behind closed gates?

John said...

Jesus would never live in a gated community, TommyD. Just sayin'.

TommyD said...

Oh yeah? It doesn't get more exclusive than gates made of pearls.