May 5, 2011

“… and a Haughty Spirit before a Fall”

Let me begin by making it clear that I did not lose a wink of sleep on Sunday evening after learning of the death of Osama bin Laden.  On the other hand, I have been deeply troubled by the numerous slide shows (e.g., here, here, and here) that have emphasized the celebration of the assassination of America’s number one “public enemy” as a matter of national pride on par with winning an Olympic sporting event (replete in television reports with video representations of ritualistic chants of “USA, USA”).  The Agon has done a pretty good job of calling out the problematic relationship between nationalism and sport as it relates to this particular event—not least the absurdity of most of those doing the celebrating as if they were the Navy Seals who actually did the job, rather like fans who claim membership in “Yankee Nation” or “Red Sox Nation” and then take the credit for their team’s good fortunes as if they actually played the game themselves.  And others have made the point that there is something problematic in celebrating the death of any individual, for as the poet put it, “every man’s death diminishes me.”  Both points are well taken, and yet there is still a different point to be made.

The photograph above moderates the announcement of victory so boldy asserted in most of the celebratory photographs by casting it in the present continuous tense: the USA is “winning.”  The ambiguity here is pronounced, for while it could be taken to mean that victory is all but inevitable, notice too that it also implies that the contest is not yet over.  That should give us pause, for as the philosopher Yogi Berra put, “it ain’t over till its over.”  But even that begs the much bigger question:  what has been won or what do we stand to win?

For some, no doubt, Osama bin Laden has been brought to justice.  And that is no small thing.  But what exactly does it mean to count that as a marker of “winning”?  In the nearly ten years since 9/11 we have sacrificed numerous civil liberties, both for ourselves and for others.  Citizens can no longer board an airplane without the risk of being “patted down” by TSA officials as if they were common criminals, and that is perhaps the least of the inconveniences we now experience as a matter of course when we travel.  Our leaders have endorsed the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” as a way of skirting the Geneva Conventions, and with it we have sacrificed a part of our humanity.  We have initiated two wars of occupation that have not only cost us the lives of nearly six thousand American troops, but countless others as well.  The financial cost (1.2 trillion dollars and counting) of these wars is primarily (if not singularly) responsible for the debt burden that our government now carries and will be passed on to future generations.  And there is no real end in sight, the death of Osama bin Laden to the contrary notwithstanding.  One can make an argument to justify each and everyone of these responses to attacks made against our nation, but in the end it is hard to imagine the result as anything but a Pyrrhic victory, let alone as a moment for haughty celebration.

Yes, Osama bin Laden is dead.  Justice has been served.  But one really has to wonder who the real winner is.

— John Lucaites

(Crossposted from No Caption Needed — photo: Eric Thayer/Reuters)

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John Lucaites
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