Wednesday, May 11, 2011

How should I feel?

Scott McLemee provides a link to a YouTube video of someone trying unsuccessfully to get a chant of "USA!" going on the New York subway after bin Laden's death and writes:
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.


  1. This is all very well-put. Thanks. I share your sentiments about your lack of sentiment in this case.

  2. Thanks, Matt. I have (at least temporarily) lost the last post I wrote, but at least blogger seems to be up and running again.

  3. I did start on a longish comment the other day, but blogger ate it. So here's the truncated version: I also take no pride in this matter, but obviously for other reasons. I doubt that much of what you write applies in my case (being Norwegian and having visited the US only once, many years ago), but thanks for sharing. Over here we only get to see the dancing and the singing in the American streets. (Which looks a little strange.)

  4. Yes, it's hard to say what you feel as an individual and yet express something that others are likely to relate to as well. But perhaps just doing that shows how wrong some generalizations might be. And in case anyone reading this hasn't seen them, there are pretty good comments on the death of bin Laden and the reaction to it by Michael Moore (here) and Massimo Pigliucci (here).

  5. I hadn't seen any of them. Interesting, Moore's article in particular. Thank you.

    I agree about the generalizations. They often look like cheep mass psychology. How can anyone possibly know how thousands of people feel and why they act the way they do? As if there couldn't be serious disagreement about what was important in an incident. Though Kazez does discuss how when we are happy about something, we are always happy about it under a description, she more or less concludes that there is only one way to describe the elimination of bin Laden: it was the success of a 10 year mission, the display of intelligence and prowess -- and that, she says, is something she (we?) ought to be happy about. (And if we’re not, we probably still are -- at bottom, or if that's not the case, then that calls for some explanation.) I'm not sure about that. Even within the frames of Kazez' description -- which looks acceptable -- there might be features we can actually feel bad about. Pigliucci mentions hypocrisy and the flaunting of international law. And, for me at least, the WAY this operation was conducted, fits uncomfortably well with certain understandings of terrorism. And if you are struck by this similarity -- if you are inclined to describe the operation this way -- ought you still to be happy about it? (I haven't seen anyone else discussing this, so perhaps I'm way off.)

  6. Yes, I agree with most of that. I'm not sure what you mean by the last bit, though, where you mention a similarity between the operation against bin Laden and terrorism. Both involve violence conducted secretly by a small group, but I think of terrorism as aimed at producing terror, or at least lowering morale, by showing frightening disregard for moral rules about who is a legitimate target. The attack on bin Laden didn't do that, did it? If it did disregard any rules, then it was only because those rules are now routinely disregarded. The goal was killing bin Laden, not creating terror. Although perhaps it was partly to undermine enemy morale.

    The main similarity with terrorism that occurs to me is the phrase "shock and awe," which sounds like something chosen after looking up terror in a thesaurus. But no one has talked about shock and awe for a few years now, I think.

  7. You may be right. I'm not sure about this.

    There is, it seems, no universally agreed upon definition of terrorism, but what you write does indeed seem to be at the heart of it, so I am a bit confused here. But here is my second go on the issue.

    My suggestion in the previous comment is based on a Norwegian example that, on the face of it, looks very similar to what took place in Pakistan the other day. (I have written about this incident on my own blog, and I tried to show it to Jean Kazez too, but couldn't make much headway with it.) In 1973 undercover Mossad agents shot and killed a man on the streets of a small Norwegian town. The victim was thought (erroneously) to be a central member of the Black September, who was responsible for the Munich-massacre of the year before. This operation (and others like it) was an important part of Israel's international anti-terrorism campaign. In Norway however, this incident is quite commonly thought of as the worst example of terrorism in our country's history.

    I'm not sure what to make of this, though. Maybe Norwegians just have a peculiar way of using the word terrorism? In fact, I suspect that something of that sort is part of the answer. "Terrorism" is a term that lends itself very easily to, more or less conscious, strategical uses. You can, it seems, define the term and use it to do almost any job you need done. Where you apply it, often reflects where you stand on certain political issues. And if Norwegians can do it, so can other countries. Maybe this is where my fear lies -- at the rhetorico-political level. It would be a disaster if other countries should (which seems to have some precedence, if my Norwegian example can tell us anything) start calling this kind of operations, and this one in particular, not just a disregard for international laws, but terrorism too, and use that -- perhaps under the banner of war on terror -- as an excuse to go international to combat the evil.

  8. That's an interesting case. Thanks. It sounds like a case of shocking, covert, international, violent crime, and I think I see why people might call that terrorism. I wouldn't call it that myself, for reasons I've already given, but it's understandable. And potentially dangerous too, as you say.

    One problem with the killing of bin Laden, and of the whole use of drones to kill wanted al Qaeda members, Taliban leaders, and whoever else might be targeted, is that it might seem to legitimate assassination of whoever is disliked by some country or organization. I don't know how much more likely this makes terrorist attacks or assassinations (perhaps any that happen would have happened regardless), but it does seem possible that extra-judicial killings will have consequences we don't like. Not that this is the only possible reason to oppose them, of course.