On the Death of Osama Bin Laden

Note: this post first appeared on my other blog, Left of Center. Since this is a topic that touches on such a wide range of subjects, I figured the least I could do is put it up on FIWK and get a larger discussion going.

nough time has passed - both on this blog and in the real world - for me to feel comfortable writing about this. There are two reasons why I'm choosing to come back now, and on this topic. The first is that, after months of inanity, a story that cuts across the political spectrum - that actually seems to matter - was finally front page news. It may seem strange that I, someone who wrote about leafblowers, was not sufficiently inspired by all the other inanity to comment. But, I felt then and I feel now that not commenting is in a sense making a statement on how I feel about the place of those stories in our political discourse. The second, more personal, reason has to do with my own reaction to the killing of Osama Bin Laden. As in, when I heard the news I wasn't sure how to react. At all. For me, this is strange, as any bit of news - no matter how trivial - will usually elicit at least a visceral reaction from me.

Perhaps it was the way I found out - on the Metro, on my way in to work on a Monday morning, on my iPhone, on ESPN's mobile site of all places. I'm still unsure whether Bin Laden's death will ultimately become a "Where Were You When...?" moment on the lines of the JFK assassination (for my parents' generation) and the September 11th attacks (for my generation), but there I was taking a mental note of the surroundings to file them away. Perhaps it is the ambiguity of it all, at least as it compares to the cold, stark shock of 9/11. Then, I remember sitting bolt upright as the news trickled in, transfixed to the TV after having slept in the living room the night before, incredulous as to what was happening before my very eyes because, of course, no one my age had ever seen anything like this before. My reaction was both intensely personal - at the time, my cousin was a United flight attendant on the San Francisco-Boston route, and one of my close friends from high school was living in Lower Manhattan - and intensely patriotic. In something I wrote in the week following the attacks, I did not hesitate to refer to George W. Bush as "my President" and ardently, even stridently, hoped he would find those responsible for the carnage and bring them to justice in any matter he saw fit.

It was a simple and straightforward reaction that day and those many years ago; evil had scored a triumphant victory over good, and I felt no shame or moral ambiguity in wishing pain & suffering on those who had unleashed so much of each on so many innocent victims. As the years passed, however, that certainty began to fade: both due to the passage of time and its singular ability to dull emotion, and due to actions taken & causes justified in the name of justice for the 9/11 attacks. Anyone who knows my political slant won't need a recitation of the events to which I am referring, but the they should be familiar to everyone: Guatanamo, the Iraq War, yellowcake, Abu Ghraib, "Mission Accomplished", warrantless wiretapping...the list goes on.

And the list continued to go on in such a way that, by the time I stared down at my phone at the Tolbiac Metro stop and read "Osama Bin Laden Dead", I didn't know what to feel. Was I happy that an avowed enemy of the United States was dead? Yes. Was I worried about the retribution that might come from the killing? Yes. Was I relieved that the family members of 9/11 victims could extract some measure of justice? Yes. Was I proud of the way that the US Armed Forces had carried out the operation with such precise swiftness? Yes. Was I taken aback, even a bit ashamed, at seeing images of crowds waving flags and chanting "U-S-A!" in front of the White House and in Times Square? Yes. Did I feel that Osama Bin Laden had long ago become more of a symbol than an actual target, and that his death now would do very little to change the course of history? Yes. Did I feel that this outcome justified all that is listed above, and the deaths of thousands first in Afghanistan and then Iraq? No. Ah, there we go. Cue ambiguity. And this was in the moment, before Dick Cheney took to the airwaves triumphantly proclaiming that the death of Bin Laden was an air-tight justification of the policies of torture - excuse me, "enhanced interrogation techniques" - put in place by the Bush Administration, even though Bin Laden's death was brought about on an order from the same President who had ordered his Administration to end those same, noxious, antithetical-to-all-that-is-good-and-human-and-American policies. This was before Sarah Palin, whose pettiness seems to know no bounds, set a new standard for petty by refusing to even mention Obama's name when congratulating those responsible for bringing about Bin Laden's death. Because, I guess, those Navy SEALs had "gone rogue" with the mission, and were never given an order by their Commander-in-Chief.

You see, I had sincerely hoped beyond hope that Bin Laden's death would not (like so many other things: judicial nominees, Planned Parenthood, Social Security...) become just another political football to slap around to the benefit of exactly no one. And, for about 48 hours, I was able to hold on to that hope. But I think that the myriad questions that ran through my head in the minutes following the news (only partially delineated here, for your sake and mine) - and the ambiguity that followed - came from a sense of foreboding of how the news would be treated and used. To avoid any kind of moral ambiguity, I would have to acknowledge that a wholehearted, full-throated celebration of Bin Laden's death also meant a tacit endorsement of all that had been done - either directly or tangentially - in the avowed pursuit of bringing him to justice. And that, of course, was never going to happen.

And so, here I am today. While I sincerely hope that many of the families of the victims of 9/11 have been able to get some closure out of Bin Laden's death, I know that this won't be the case for all the families. While I am sufficiently awed by the training and tactics of US Special Forces, the moral absolutist in me stays awake at night wondering whether the order given was "kill or capture" or simply "kill". And while I, perhaps foolishly, believe that the death of Bin Laden will lead to at least a forceful reexamination of the Afghanistan War - if not a concerted effort to draw down forces sooner rather than later -, I can't help but be overwhelmed to think of the lives already lost and families torn apart by US military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I don't think clarity will come soon, so the best way to end this is to share something that I feel captures the state of my mind right now. It should come as no great surprise that it is from "The West Wing", and it is a passage I have returned to many times - not for an answer, but for acknowledgement that someone, somewhere, even in a fictional universe, was grappling with the same ambiguity. In my head, the voices have the following exchange:

Leo: Just stop it already. This is the most horrifying part of your liberalism: you think there are moral absolutes.
Bartlett: There are moral absolutes.
Leo: Apparently not. He's killed innocent people, he'll kill more, so we have to end him. The village idiot comes to that conclusion before the Nobel Laureate.
Bartlet: Il Principe has justified every act of oppression -
Leo: This is justified. This is required.
Bartlett: Says who?
Leo: Says me, Mr. President. You want to go ask some more people, they'll say so, too.

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