Holland, MI. Around 11:00 Sunday night I received a text from a friend informing me that Osama bin Laden had been killed by US military and intelligence units. I confess to indifference. I’m not sure I can categorize the reasons for my indifference. For one, I already operated with the assumption that bin Laden no longer effectively headed Al Qaeda’s operations, and so his death would likely make little difference in terms of the threat of terrorism. For another, I had long been of the opinion that the obsession with getting bin Laden both distracted from the really important intelligence work that had to be done and served to pacify public anger and discontent. He was a useful symbol, to be sure, but little more than that.

As I listened to the President’s self-congratulatory address to the nation last night, however, I was struck by a couple of things that seemed to me significant. For one thing, I am reminded of how little we know about what our government does. I understand that intelligence work is and must be largely clandestine, but the gap between what I know and pay attention to and what the government does struck me as particularly large. They have their job to do and I have mine, but at the same time Obama’s speech, like so many others I have heard him give, impressed me in terms of its disconnectedness to my life. More and more we seem to be ruled by largely interchangeable bureaucrats who constantly do stuff that may implicate or affect me in some fashion, but over which I have no knowledge and no control. To me, this provided further evidence of how remote our politics has become. To put it crassly: is my life really any different or better today because bin Laden is dead? Is any Americans’?

The sheer reach of American influence and power both underscores and intensifies that remoteness. By my count, looking at recent DoD statistics, we have a military presence in 148 different countries, amounting to over half a million personnel. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the US military is its command structure and the division of the globe regionally into areas of command. One thing I learned about politics from my parents, who spent their formative years under Nazi occupation: if you want to get a population mad at you, plunk your military down in the middle of them.

Whatever lessons we have learned from bin Laden’s attacks on America, listening to the  President’s speech reminds me of two very important lessons we haven’t learned: you can’t stick your nose in other people’s affairs and not expect them to take a swing at it now and then, and all this rhetoric about how “we are not at war with Islam” is almost precious in its naïveté. The constant tendency of Western liberals to think that wars of religion are behind us and that all good Muslims think of religious differences the same way we do is a prejudice that hasn’t yet finished biting us in the ass.

Then too, much of the commentary has been equally obtuse. The myriad claims that “justice has been served” are offset by the rather crude assumptions concerning justice with which most writers have operated. Typically they run along the lines of Andrew Klavan in The City Journal who simply argued that Osama got what he deserved. Granted that is not justice tinged with mercy, but I’m not sure it is justice at all, mistaking one element of justice for the whole of it. Or the commentary has been equally self-congratulatory, arguing that killing bin Laden further proves the historical inevitability and hence rightness of liberal democracy. One particularly egregious example of this addled thinking belonged to Paul Berman of The New Republic who took the day’s news to mean “History is not on bin Laden’s side. History is on the side of democracy and freedom. History will not be deterred.” Substitute the word “we” for “history” and the rhetoric might make sense. It is still objectionable, but it makes sense at least. God help us if that’s the best evidence we can muster.

The conceit that history takes sides has quickly become the most tiresome trope in the progressive lexicon. Its regnant assumption that the future constitutes a better guide to present action than does the past hardly requires refutation, being so patently silly. Still, as Chesterton once said, one can turn back the clock because, after all, it’s a mechanical instrument of human design, as is society itself. Like Chesterton, we refuse to believe instruments are sharp because they haven’t been used or dull because they have.

But I expect to be annoyed by the wisdom of the pundits. What caught me flat-footed was the reaction of the public. I suppose it ought not have, given what we witnessed post-9/11. Still, the bloodlust has been palpable, and frankly I find it deeply unnerving. In Grand Rapids today a local radio station held a “payback party” replete with speakers who all had a bullet in the chamber, so to speak. This has not been a time for meditation, for reflection, for pause concerning the disturbing ubiquity of violence in our lives; rather, it was turned into a communal celebration.

While I have my reservations concerning the theories of Rene Girard, although I happily concede I find them fascinating, here it seems his theories of mimetic desire and rivalry actually apply. The short version of Girard’s theory is that human beings are both desirous and imitative creatures, largely as a result of our own inherent deficiencies. When in community with other persons we find ourselves desiring the same object they do, and given the general scarcity of the object, we become rivals for it. This rivalry generates conflict which generates violence. Think Cain and Abel, or Jacob and Esau. Because we are imitative creatures we begin to mimic the other’s desire which often generates the desire within us. As this mimetic tension increases, it seeks to discharge itself through scapegoating. The identification of a common enemy creates a “victim” whose elimination, usually in a mimetic act of violence, lessens the conflict and emergent violence between the mimetic rivals. The “victim,” transformed then into a myth, serves the dual purpose of representing the cause of the crisis generated by mimetic conflict, and solves the crisis through its sacrificial death. By defusing the crisis and introducing peace through its sacrifice the victim becomes “sacred.” The act of violence, then, restores the community to its original equilibrium, reinvigorating its shared identity and purpose.

It doesn’t take great imagination to see something like this happening in America in the wake of the news of Osama’s death. Indeed, hardly had the body been put to sea when our President admonished us  “And tonight, let us think back to the sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11. I know that it has, at times, frayed. Yet today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people.” One might think it remarkable that a person who has so consistently taken sides on divisive issues would use this moment to call for unity, for clearly there is no intrinsic relation between the death of bin Laden and abortion policy, or health care reform, or corporate tax rates, or gay marriage, or deficits, or offshore drilling. Well, maybe that. Here, however, we see how the violent death of the scapegoat is meant to serve the purpose of restoring the community to a peaceful equilibrium. Perhaps this explains my attitude when I heard the news: the pervasive sense that scapegoating was taking place.

This sense was confirmed by the images I viewed today. At college campuses across the country, students poured out of their rooms and celebrated the covert operations of the US Military. Thousands of students at Penn State and at UMass singing the National Anthem. Students at Ohio State jumping into a lake and chanting “USA!” Citizens congregating in front of the White House to celebrate the violent death of another at the hand of our nation’s leader. I want to state emphatically I am NOT saying that we shouldn’t have killed bin Laden. But the paroxysms of celebration, the orgiastic bloodlust ought to give pause to decent people. Violence, after all, and we have this on good authority, begets violence. To treat this incident as if one just won the national championship in basketball is to set aside and not advance the fundamental tenet of liberal democracy, of America at its very best: the inherent dignity of every person. (To me, 9/11 served as a remarkable reminder of this when workers painstakingly picked through tons of rubble hoping to find body parts.) I think the right thing was done, but we can’t have a serious argument about the morality of what happened if we don’t acknowledge its inherent evil. And we can’t acknowledge that if our rhetoric euphemizes, obscures, transvaluates, or otherwise distorts the reality of the event. To that end, the President’s address has to be regarded as a failure.

Whatever else is the case, for a nation to find itself in a position where it commits tremendous financial and personal resources, and puts at risk the lives of its service men and women, not to mention its citizens, in the effort to hunt and kill one man, ought to cause for serious reflection and not drunken revelry. The US government has been following the lead that resulted in Osama’s death for four years. Is this responsible? Is our collective bloodlust worthy of our better angels, or do we end up in the streets mimicking the very people we mock and disdain? What is the proper scope and exercise of American power? Is justice served in this fashion, or is this simply revenge? What of the man who pulled the trigger? How will the splattering of brain matter and the dead bodies haunt him? It is easy to jump up and down and courageously take credit when you are not the one who has to do the killing.

Girard’s positing of the connection between violence and the sacred pertains in this case to the tenets of American civil religion. Indeed, Osama’s death, like so many others in the wars before him, serves to deepen the religion of America, whose object is America. Osama is killed, and Americans take to the street chanting “USA” and singing the national anthem. People start talking about recovering the unity we had after 9/11, never once asking why this is a desirable thing, or what ends it will serve other than to make America “great,” and insure, as the President said, that “America can do whatever we set our mind to” (“can” as in “permissible”?). Forming and deepening our identity through sacrificial violence, American leaders have continually evoked the content of the civil religion both to justify the violence and the increase in power that results from it. For this reason, the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and its gathering of Americans into one undifferentiated mass at the end of Obama’s speech served not an ancillary but an essential purpose: to remind Americans from whence their help comes, and to articulate for them rationalizing ideas which make the exercise of violence permissible even as it obscures the agent thereof.

How false and shallow must be the unity that emerges from a violent killing that takes place half a world away. How empty the lives of those who see in violence a release from the otherwise humdrum monotony of their existence.  How simpleminded a country that seems incapable of taking moments such as this as opportunities to ask hard questions of itself, of its heritage, of its ideas – questions it won’t ask because it fears the answers. How precarious the security of a people who insist on purchasing it always and only with blood.

 

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Jeffrey Polet
Jeffrey Polet grew up in an immigrant household in the immigrant town of Holland MI. After twenty years of academic wandering he returned to Holland and now teaches political science at Hope College, where he also grudgingly serves as chair of the department, having unsuccessfully evaded all requests. In the interim, he continues to nurture quirky beliefs: Division III basketball is both athletically and morally superior to Division I; the Hope/Calvin rivalry is the greatest in sports; the lecture is still the best form of classroom instruction; never buy a car with less than 100,000 miles on it; putts will still lip out in heaven; bears are the incarnation of evil; Athens actually has something to do with Jerusalem; and Tombstone is a cinematic classic. His academic work has mirrored his peripatetic career. Originally trained at the Catholic University of America in German philosophy and hermeneutical theory, he has since gravitated to American Political Thought. He still occasionally writes about European thinkers such as Michel Foucault or the great Max Weber, but mostly is interested in the relationship between theological reflection and political formation in the American context. In the process of working on a book on John Marshall for The Johns Hopkins University Press, he became more sensitive to the ways in which centralized decision-making undid local communities and autonomy. He has also written on figures such as William James and the unjustly neglected Swedish novelist Paer Lagerkvist. A knee injury and arthritis eliminated daily basketball playing, and he now spends his excess energy annoying his saintly wife and their three children, two of whom are off to college. Expressions of sympathy for the one who remains can be posted in the comments section. He doesn’t care too much for movies, but thinks opera is indeed the Gesamtkuntswerk, that the music of Gustav Mahler is as close as human beings get to expressing the ineffable, that God listens to Mozart in his spare time, and that Bach is history’s greatest genius.

25 COMMENTS

  1. “How false and shallow must be the unity that emerges from a violent killing that takes place half a world away. How empty the lives of those who see in violence a release from the otherwise humdrum monotony of their existence…. How precarious the security of a people who insist on purchasing it always and only with blood.”

    Does the meaning of this paragraph change if you have in mind a different violent killing 2000 years ago?

  2. Your description of people’s reactions makes me glad I don’t watch television news. I’m glad not to have seen it. I can understand Navy SEALS being somewhat celebratory, but the rest of it I don’t care to be around.

  3. Finally a sane voice. I had almost lost hope. I’ve been disgusted at what I’ve seen these past couple of days. The feed on my Facebook account has been almost a steady stream of “burn in hell Osama,” and “how’s that bullet in your head feel?” and other such barbarisms. The crudeness in people’s thinking that these statements reveal is downright disturbing.

    I think you’re right to see this in Girardian terms. There’s no doubt that this is an act of symbolic communal violence – an old fashioned revenge killing. I don’t have a problem with the fact that the U.S. government killed a mass murderer. That was going to happen sooner or later. But the reaction of the mobs of people on Monday raises questions for me about what America is becoming, or could potentially become.

    I’ve read that Bin Laden first became interested in politics when he heard about injustices that many Palestinians were subjected to by Israeli settlers. That should give us pause for thought…he started down his path as a mass murderer out of concern for the suffering of others. It was only later that he was radicalized. It was later that his thinking was twisted. It was later that he became something that his younger, less cynical self would have been disgusted at.

    How easy it is to become that which you hate when consumed with anger and a desire for revenge. And when we see soccer mom’s posting comments on Facebook that look like they could have come straight off a terrorist website, I think we have reason to be concerned.

  4. Excellently said, Jeffrey. I didn’t find Obama’s address to be as “self-congratulatory” as you did, but they way you tied his (rather lame, I thought) invocation of the supposed “unity” experienced across the U.S. with Girard’s notion of the purposes of a scapegoat was thoughtful and profound. My thanks.

  5. Thank you, Jeffery! You state sound words into a fallen world… I, like you and as I assume most the world, am thankful a known, despicable terrorist is gone… So why shouldn’t thoughtful reflection and inward focus prevail? Why does terrorism exist in the first place? We need to examine our own hearts and the resulting actions thereof before we become no better than the perpetrators of evil that we hate so much.
    Godspeed to you and yours!

  6. For once, I would like to choose not to care about the overall ethics of the thing and just be glad that we accomplished our goal. We brought a mass-murderer to justice. We found him. We did it. Hooray.

  7. It’s awful that we call this justice. Was shooting him in the head a respectable and equitable allocation of justice? And if so, under whose authority is such an allocation sanctioned? Our ‘bringing bin Laden to justice” is frighteningly similar to the justice he purported to bring to our country in 2001.

  8. Agreed. How odd that we, a largely-Christian nation, take such giddy pride in the death of a human being, regardless of how deserving.

    But perhaps more odd is that we don’t exhibit the same zeal for exacting similar swift and finite justice upon murderers who lounge in relative comfort in our own prisons. I wonder how many Americans fiercely oppose the death penalty for crimes that our own citizens commit yet at the same time joyfully celebrate the (very expensive) killing of foreign criminals.

  9. “I wonder how many Americans fiercely oppose the death penalty for crimes that our own citizens commit yet at the same time joyfully celebrate the (very expensive) killing of foreign criminals.”

    Count one here. Is it inconsistent? Yes. But for once I do not care.

    Personally, I find your viewpoint arrogant and condescending. Who are you to judge others for being glad at the delivery of justice?

  10. There’s a whole lot of moral preening going on here. And what’s worse, its being dressed up in a fey theological vocabulary that sounds like the worst of Joel Osteen. If anybody wants to understand why the Church has lost so much of its moral authority in contemporary society, they need look no further than this article and its comments.

    If there is one word that does not describe Osama bin Laden, its “scapegoat.” I cannot claim much familiarity with Gerard’s work, but I do know that a scapegoat is someone who is unfairly made to carry the guilt of the community. Does that sound like Osama to you? First of all, he was not a member of our community, but a foreign enemy; that’s significant. Secondly, and most obviously, he was not unfairly targeted; his death was supremely fair. He had the blood of thousands of people on his hands. If you really think that by killing such a man we are acting just like he did, or liable to become like he was, then please don’t say another word on a moral topic for the rest of your life. That’s ridiculous. It’s like saying the prison warden is in danger of becoming like an axe-murderer by locking him away.

    Similarly, if there is one word that does not describe the general reaction of the American people, it would be “bloodthirsty.” Sure, there were outbursts of indecorous jubilation, particularly on college campuses (and of course, college students act like jackasses all the time, so where’s the surprise here?), but indecorousness is not bloodlust. By and large, the gatherings I watched were more muted, like the quiet crowd around Ground Zero, or the crowd listening to “Amazing Grace” (that infamous war march) in Times Square. And most of the people interviewed on television expressed conflicting emotions – satisfaction in the justice of Osama’s death, mixed with a discomfort at that satisfaction; a realization that the man’s death will not remedy the evils of the past, along with a hope that the world is moving towards a more peaceful future (a belief which, I am afraid, is quite naïve). None of this adds up to bloodlust, not by a million miles, and it is extremely unfair to make that charge. Especially when one considers just how anomalous this reaction was for our country; we have never reacted this way at the news of any man’s death, and are not likely to do so again any time soon. Extraordinary cases make bad laws, and extraordinary emotional outbursts in the midst of extraordinary historical circumstances make bad occasions to deprecate the character of a people.

    As I understand it, FPR is a website that is oriented towards an inquiry into the principles which underlie civil community. Well, one of the impulses at the heart of a civil community is the impulse to protect your own. I assume it will be different in the City of God, but in the City of Men, it is so. What has been on display from the American people the last couple of days is, above all, a satisfaction that we have been true to our own. The American people deserve a lot of criticism for a lot of things – but not for this.

  11. “It’s awful that we call this justice. Was shooting him in the head a respectable and equitable allocation of justice?”

    Plus a shot to the chest, standard procedure when shooting someone actively resisting with a weapon.

  12. Nvm, I just read that in the revised press release, OBL was not armed. So what’s the true story?

  13. Thanks, Jeffrey, and thanks Mark S., too, for some food for thought. I hope you’ll continue to dialogue, and not just let this drop.

  14. One of the more hilarious bits of conventional wisdom trotted out over releasing photographs of the assassination is the notion that they might be “too Gruesome”. This coming from a media-entertainment complex whose principle output is anything and everything gratuitously gruesome or licentious.

    If only one of the nitwits on the show “Jersey shore” could have been one of the Seals who did the deed.

  15. I was on board – to some extent – until you said, “Violence, after all, and we have this on good authority, begets violence.” And it made me think you’ve only read the footnotes of Girard. One of the central points of Girard on the phenomena of scapegoating is actually that it puts an end to violence. Catharsis.

    I for one hope and expect that the death of Osama will lead to less violence in the years to come. Girard would say that, as a nation, the death of Osama should had a cathartic effect on the bloodlust we’ve had for the last 10 years, not increase it. That’s the whole point of Girard, as I read it.

  16. “Cathartic effect”…ho ho ho, this nation cannot get enough blood. Blood entertainment is big business and a regular paycheck. French Philosophes are good only up to a point.

  17. Larson: You read Girard incorrectly. The “kingdom of violence” does not end, in his analysis. The tension gets released but never resolved, only and always to be repeated. The only thing that resolves it is the death of Christ, which Girard reads “non-sacrifically.” Christ transcends violence by refusing to be part of it, and by revealing the innocence of the victim. For the rest, human culture is violence. This is a thumbnail sketch, but based on more than footnotes. And it was Christ, after all, who told us that those who live by the sword shall die by it.

    Mark: I find your claims contestable in all sorts of ways. While I don’t regard Osama as “innocent” it does seem that his death is part of the whole “kingdom of violence” that Girard draws our attention to. One can be scapegoated without being innocent if the death is altered symbolically through calculated rhetoric. I agree with D.W.: this is not an anomaly. I would also like to remind you that I stated that the government had a legitimate role to play here in protecting the community and punishing evildoers. But not like this. And if our President is as enamored with Reinhold Niebuhr as he claims to be, a stronger sense of both tragedy and irony would have been in order. Perhaps he could have demonstrated something to the public.

  18. Personally, and this is a dark precinct indeed, but I wonder if Christ did not so much “transcend violence” as embrace and regurgitate it for the piqued delectation of the masses and serious alarm of the Apostles. He grabbed man’s spiteful vengeance by the horns and rode the bull. Had he transcended violence, the crucifixion would be a moot point. Instead, it still stands starkly upon the Golgotha of the Western Imagination today and we have yet to come to grips with Man’s Inhumanity to Man. The River of Love is abiding yet anguish abrades this channel like tumbling stones in a freshet, leaving deltas of remorse in the wake of our distemper. This remonstrance from the cross was not a sacrifice, it was a challenge and the fatalism of the age fails the test.

  19. D.W. Sabin:

    “Instead, it still stands starkly upon the Golgotha of the Western Imagination today and we have yet to come to grips with Man’s Inhumanity to Man.” Co-sign.

    “This remonstrance from the cross was not a sacrifice, it was a challenge….” Wasn’t it BOTH? (And more?)

  20. Osama got his, and I am honest enough to say it made me smile to find out about it, and to hear they tossed his body into the ocean like garbage was the icing on the cake.

    Dropping Navy SEALs out of the sky from brand new stealth helicopters sends a message to the whole region. I think the Mullahs in Iran took note of what happened and will think twice before launching a holy war to unite all Shia under their leadership and destroy the nation of Isreal. We live in a world of monsters (some monsters are indeed heroes to others). Monsters have to be destroyed. Religious fanatics cannot be reasoned with; they must be eliminated. It is kill or be killed with these people and I say stack them high and wide, let Allah sort them out.

    I was only 11 years old when I watched live as the second plane flew into the second tower. I saw people jumping to their deaths on TV to avoid the flames. Since those days, I have made it my mission to study the region, the religions of Islam (Sunni and Shia) to learn Arabic (Rosetta Stone, age 17), and to understand why America is in that part of the world (oil and cash). This is a war, or is that so easily forgotten now that the well off can outsource their killing to the poorest 1% of the population. It is easy to pontificate idealistic nonsense from behind your computer screen in your plush home while less than 1% of the population actually fights to preserve our society. A society so hooked on oil it will come apart at the seams in weeks to months if we do not preserve unfettered access to Islamic oil for ourselves. We need their oil, so we back people like Mubarak, the Al-Sauds and Al-Khalifas while they murder and torture their own people, they keep their people in check and we get the oil that makes are society function, our principles be damned, it has been going on for decades and I am only 21 so I didn’t start this crap, it is just the real world I was born into. Until we are off of Middle Eastern oil and out of that part of the world 100%, we will be hated by some Muslims no matter what else we do, so we must stand ready to kill them. I will stand ready for you since you are too naive and idealistic to understand how the real world works.

    The strong do as the wish and the weak suffer what they must – Thucydides, it was true thousands of years ago, and it is true today, and it will be true when I wake up from my nap.

    I hope you like driving your Audi around full of Middle Eastern oil. How about next time you just say thank you. I’m going to go slam so beers with my boys, celebrate bin Ladens death one last time. I have another year of schooling and Navy ROTC before I go try out for the SEALs myself.

  21. Jeff:

    I don’t know who first said it but is has been often noted that people would rather be badly ruled by their own people than well by an occupier. Nowhere is that truism more on display than in Afghanistan. Chuck Colson is of the belief that our military presence there can no longer be justified by the “just war” doctrine. I tend to agree and sometimes think we should simply depart with the announcement that if that “nation ” again becomes a staging gound for terrorism, we will come back to do what our military does best–break things and kill people.

    As for the sometimes unseemly display of triumphalism we saw in the wake of Bin Laden’s killing, I am somewhat less bothered than you with all the rejoicing. Maybe it’s because I believe (or am I rationalizing?) that there really was an exactment of a certain righteous judgment on a man who surely deserved judging, making our military an agent of God’s wrath (See Romans 13:4). To be pleased with a just judgment of evil–and there was an element of that in the celebrations we saw–doesn’t strike me as all that crude of a response. Both justice and mercy are elements of God’s nature. Of course, the problem I have with these two parts of the Lord’s character is that I want justice for my enemies and mercy for myself. That ugly smugness enters my life every time I watch a Rivalry game. I want every official’s call to reflect justice on the Flying Dutchmen and mercy on the Knights.

  22. I have no problem at all with harsh revenge against a mass murderer. Ideally we should be taking a million eyes for an eye, not just one eye for an eye.

    But I’m no longer convinced that Osama had anything to do with the events of the last 10 years. Or if he did, he was continuing his assigned role as a CIA pawn. Seems more likely that he was killed just now because he was about to tell the truth.

  23. One driving force, I believe, that rarely gets discussed and is certainly appropriate to this discussion is the need to “win”. However it gets defined, many things in America are rationalized by “winning”. Whether it be armed conflict, business, politics, the “other”, sports or making money – winning is the goal. Does not the killing of Osama bin Laden represent a win? All wins are worthy of celebration, no matter how short lived, aren’t they?

    I get frustrated by President Obama’s speeches by his frequent us of the word. “We will win the future” and similar remarks simply imply everything is a competition rather than a cooperative venture. To have a winner don’t you need a loser? Who wants to be the loser? Are not there usually many losers for every winner?

    I believe that cooperation leads to much less desperation than constant competition on every front. Less desperation can lead to more social stability. Most don’t know that the game Monopoly was originally created by a Quaker to teach children that competition and concentration of assets lead to one winner and many losers. Of course, our capitalist society saw the game as something else and the rest is history.

    I am reminded of an old John Prine song that has the refrain “Well your flag decal woulnd’t get you into heaven anymore – It’s already over crowded from your dirty little war – and Jesus don’t like killing, no matter what the reason for ….”

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