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.