As someone living near enough to the White House to take the mission of the Flight 93 hijackers rather personally, I did not wish Osama bin Laden well. But celebrating his execution as a rite of closure seems both barbarous and bad magic; the spirit of revenge, once summoned, is hard to control. If the people in the subway car don’t start giving each other high-fives, that’s because some are already preparing themselves for the worst.So people who won't join in such chants are fearful of future terrorist attacks (and/or, presumably, not barbarous in that way).
According to Jean Kazez:
Barack Obama succeeded in eliminating Osama bin Laden from the world stage. You'd think that liberals would be wildly celebrating. I'm amazed -- really, really amazed -- that some have managed to find something to feel bad about. The first thing they felt bad about was being happy. I don't know how many articles I've seen -- and conversations I've had -- about whether happiness is appropriate. But what a strange question. There's so much to be happy about, all above board. A just mission ended successfully. (Dayenu!) And Barack Obama led the way, vanquishing stereotypes about him, his ethnicity, and his political party. And we shouldn't be happy?
Ah, but we're celebrating a death -- naughty, naughty. But are we, exactly?So people (or at least liberals) who don't celebrate are really happy but feel guilty about feeling this way.
I don't know what conversations Kazez has had, so I can't say that she's wrong about some people having reacted this way. In fact, I think some of my friends might have described their own reactions as being along these lines. But I really don't think either McLemee or Kazez describes my reaction, and I doubt I'm alone in feeling (and having felt) as I do. I don't feel a happiness about which I then feel guilty, and I don't feel much fear. Nor do I think that any of this is because I'm so non-barbarous. So what is it? What do I feel and why?
Mostly I don't feel much at all about bin Laden's death. I didn't take the 9/11 attacks personally, no doubt partly because I wasn't in any of the places attacked and I'm not a US citizen. For the same reason I'm not likely to feel great pride in my country for getting bin Laden, since I only half think of the USA as my country. If Britain had got him instead I might have felt some patriotic pride, but I don't know. Patriotism in Britain has been pretty much hijacked by racists, or at least a certain kind of patriotism has. Exhibit A (the EDL is the "English Defence League"):
There is a strong enough sense of national identity in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland that the idea of British patriotism scarcely makes sense. What claim do I have to be proud of the achievements of the Scots, say? English patriotism is more understandable to me, but much more in terms of love of a place and the best parts of its culture than in pride in any alleged superiority, past or present. That kind of pride seems stupid (how can I take pride in the achievements of Shakespeare?), misplaced (England has hardly always acted well), and borderline racist (is English pride significantly better than white pride?). So I guess this all explains why I don't feel any patriotic glee at the death of bin Laden. Is that all there is to it? I don't think so.
Kazez also brings up the question of whether killing bin Laden, rather than arresting him, was wrong, and the matter of justice. She writes as if the SEALs who got him might have wanted to arrest him but shot him rather than risk his getting away or, more likely, any harm to themselves. My sense, though, is that the plan all along was to kill him. He wasn't armed, after all, when he was shot. That's an understandable plan, but I would think that the ideal would have been for him to be arrested and tried (and found guilty and seriously punished). If the reality falls short of the ideal, however inevitably it does so, then my inclination to celebrate, or just feel happy, is reduced. Should I be happy that he is not living the life of Riley in a mansion somewhere? It would rankle if he had got away with his crimes to that extent, but he wasn't living a great life. He seems to have been bored and alone, not much better off than he would have been in prison. Maybe death is closer to what he deserved, but not so much closer that it makes a big difference to how I feel about it. (My ideal punishment for him would be something like life in prison with a growing sense of guilt about what he had done. This was hardly likely to happen, of course, but that would have been my ideal. Death almost seems too little.)
Finally, I think my feelings (or lack of feelings) partly reflect a sense that evil, at least in this case, has no positive existence or, to put what I think is the same basic idea in other words, a sense of the banality of evil. (I don't mean that these are the very same idea, only that in referring to them here there is only one thing that I am trying to get at.) Bin Laden's ideology is dangerous, but it is also vacuous. It is not interestingly wrong. Al Qaeda seems to me to be an expression of ignorance, malice, and frustration. It is understandable to fear it, but it would be a mistake to be impressed by it. The killing of bin Laden is a bit like the squishing of a spider. Perhaps a relief. Perhaps necessary. Certainly understandable. But not something to celebrate. This sense that it is not such a big deal is partly a matter of thinking that he was no longer much of a threat, that he no longer posed a clear and present danger. But it is also partly a kind of moral judgment, an expression of contempt. (Is this expression of contempt a symptom of not-fully-conscious fear or resentment? I.e. is it somewhat phony? Maybe. Which is one reason for me not to get preachy about what attitudes others take. But I just don't know.)
I don't mean to preach about how anyone should feel though. I don't mean that Kazez or McLemee or anyone else is wrong to feel as they do. I'm just trying to describe my own reaction, if only because reactions like mine seem to have been misunderstood.