Feature photo by Jens Schott Knudsen
Television audiences were treated to some gripping primetime programming Sunday night as the Obama administration shocked the world with news that they had found and killed Osama bin Laden. From the moment the special reports cut in to announce the killing, the networks breathlessly reported a trickle of details that unfolded a dramatic account made more triumphant by the minute. The nine-year manhunt of Public Enemy No. 1, the whereabouts of whom it was feared would never be known, ended instead with the rifles of an American tactical squad. Bin Laden’s assassins even looked him in the eye before shooting him, delivering the retribution most Americans had resigned would never happen. He got no public martyrdom, no easy way out, and no trial, only exile from the world he was not fit to inhabit. The conquest of Osama bin Laden was everything we had forgotten to hope for.
Jessica Lynch notwithstanding, the cinematic perfection of the Navy SEALs’ mission only scratched the surface of the media hysteria surrounding it. We in the viewing public were happy to let the media resurrect all the insecurities and rage of that day ten years ago in order to get the nectar out of this turn of events. We let them peel back the numbing disappointment that the past decade has cocooned around our national psyche, so that we might glimpse the satisfaction that the death of Osama bin Laden would have once brought.
This 23-year old is having trouble feeling much of anything about the killing itself. My formative years were spent in the militaristic and economic pall cast over this country in the wake of September 11th, which makes my generation fairly jaded for life. We’ve watched poisonous domestic politics steer our empire further into decline. The War on Terror’s military efforts, too aimless and grinding to command much attention, amount to water torture eroding what faith is left in our leaders. Doubt already claws at the Obama administration’s claims about this bin Laden tale because the only thing we’ve learned to expect from government is mendacity. On the War on Terror, in short, we had given up hope, which is not so easily resurrected.
What I do feel is a peculiar anger at the jubilation the media is telling us to feel at the death of this man. I don’t mind that a human death is being celebrated. If anything, it’s refreshing to see our sterile culture embrace this parcel of real life uneuphemistically. Certainly he had it coming. What irks me is the simplicity with which the story is being sold. This is to be our answer to the Royal Wedding, it seems, a wholly positive development that unites us as a nation. His death is being presented—by the administration and positivity-starved media alike—as a reaffirmation of all that our decade-long national struggle has robbed of us. That people are consuming the package wholesale, and that this has been deemed the correct response, bothers me deeply.
In fact, this is one more killing in a cycle of misery. Bin Laden has killed thousands of innocents in the name of God, but the United States has killed hundreds of thousands in the name of bin Laden. The blind jingoism pushing the bin Laden celebrants into the streets is identical to the spirit that sold us the invasion of Iraq. That war, which was morally equivalent to the September 11th attacks, had no easy landmarks to show the misery had ended. Afghanistan, a justly-entered but quixotic burden, has even less of a handle for popular culture to grasp. Terrorists continue to strike, minutemen and Wahhabist fundamentalists alike, as they will forever. Perhaps bin Laden’s most consequential accomplishment was that he made the United States compromise its own values on due process, human rights, and civil liberties. The death of Osama bin Laden is being swallowed deliriously because it is the sole evidence that the last ten years of this country’s history have been anything but embarrassing and futile. Of course, many of us feel that to go into the streets and forgive those two wars and the small, hardened spirit of our times, we’ll need a little more than the death of a figurehead whose evasion mocked our presumptuousness for almost ten years.
The killing of a symbol is itself a symbol. Bin Laden’s death is now public property, and it will be exploited by all parties. The hawks are going to praise the SEALs and intelligence. The Bushies are going to figure out how to make W not an utter failure. Obama’s following is going to make it seem like he garroted bin Laden himself. This much is predictable and acceptable. And how would the media ideally exploit this? They’d like to make it into the most sensational feel-good story of the year, reason to do a double-take at every headline, reason to listen to talking heads announce that justice is an American thing again. It’s sickening that this myopically upbeat response has indeed become the only publicly acceptable opinion on the matter.
Rashard Mendenhall, running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers, took to Twitter on Monday to voice an objection to the celebrations. “What kind of person celebrates death?…For those of you who said you want to see bin Laden burn…I ask how would God feel about your heart?” he asked in a legitimate, obvious criticism of the hypocrisy of certain militaristic strains of the Christian-Right. The Steelers front office quickly came out to denounce the tweets and refocus the story on the military’s job well done. Mendenhall was forced to “clarify”, apologize, and was successfully deemed an idiotic football player. That Mendenhall was reprimanded for being a lonely voice of consciousness was disgraceful. But the same reprimand is silently present on every newspaper page that enjoins the celebrations, and in every interview where the 9/11 survivor’s loved one is pushed to call this resolution. No other reaction is discussed.
Osama bin Laden deserved to die. President Obama, in my opinion, made the right choice in not realizing the nightmare of a circus trial; if nothing else, he’s given a generation of legal activists something to talk about. I take issue with none of that. My objection to the reaction to the assassination of Osama bin Laden is that it bears all the hallmarks of unconscious groupthink, and it is clearly descended from the uniform urgings of the media. I take issue with the fact that the media endorsed, then anointed, a single proper reaction to the news—“jubilation,” as the AP style guide apparently dictates—which found purchase with the large bloc of this country that is fine doing what the box says. This reaction is misplaced, inappropriate and arrogant. You’d think the American public would know how fate has a way of repaying hubris, but, oh well. We were never great at history.