[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Wichita, KS

That’s a terribly unChristian thing to say, I know. To speak in moral terms–to speak of “desert”–in matters of war is to invariably invest those actors which participate in war–in other words, to invest states like our own, to say nothing of terrorist cells and other organized bodies such as those Osama bin Laden lead and inspired–with a level of moral significance that is frankly idolatrous. Bin Laden, the enemy of the United States, the enemy of all that the United States stands for, is finally dead! Righteousness wins, evil loses! That’s the sort of way of talking which opens up all sorts of abuses, which leads one into all sorts of disturbing equivalencies. There’s plenty of room for moral judgment when one looks at the consequences of actions; there’s no need to take up those consequences and turn them into game of winners and losers, of deserving and undeserving, of God’s favorites and those whom God wouldn’t mind being blown apart by an bomb. The moral plane of the universe is not somehow improved by the killing of a man. “Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he is overthrown”–the author of Proverbs had it right.

I believe all that….but I still think he deserved it. He deserved it, because he lead and inspired actions whose consequences, in a very real and specific way, not only left nearly 3000 human beings dead, and which gave rise to an occasionally desperate and often mismanaged war which has killed many thousands more (both innocent and guilty), but which have also generated pathologies that have plagued and damaged American politics ever since. He was hardly solely responsible for these results, but neither could he ever escape the blame.

Are you frustrated by the loss of civil liberties which The Patriot Act represents? Blame Osama bin Laden.

Are you disturbed by the bureaucratic mentality which has decided, in the mad pursuit of absolute safety, to treat ordinary citizens as suspects to be manhandled and debased by the TSA every time they get on a plane flight? Blame Osama bin Laden.

Are you embarrassed by the vaguely racist and often paranoid accusations which have haunted our rhetoric and our relations with other states over the past 10 years? Blame Osama bin Laden.

Are you concerned about the expansive complications and enormous costs which the United States has piled up, not only in terms of the blood and treasure expanded (perhaps necessarily…but then again, perhaps not) in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in terms of entanglements with numerous onetime foes, and disagreements with numerous onetime allies? Blame Osama bin Laden.

And are you troubled that the United States, a country founded on revolution and independence, has spent a decade sincerely playing around with the possibility of unapologetically embracing a new role as a “democratic empire,” one committed to waging an endless “war on terror”? Well, again, blame Osama bin Laden.

I’ve not doubt that many millions of people will quite sincerely, and reasonably, see the news this night as pretty straightforward: this is a success, a triumph for soldiers that have suffered too much for much too long, and a richly deserved bit of payback for the horror of September 11th, 2001. I remember the horror of that day well, as do millions of others, and I can remember the slow realization about the challenge which Osama bin Laden’s ideology posed to the American way of life which followed in the weeks and months afterwards. All of which was true.

But what I didn’t realize until much later was that the pre-occupation we had with that threat was itself a perhaps even deeper threat to the American way of life…a way that, whatever else we all disagree upon, really shouldn’t be a life conditioned by endless low-level wars, and the costly divides in American life they give rise to. We did that to ourselves, but Osama gave us the pretext for doing so, and for that, I guess he deserved what he finally, finally, got. If only I could believe that a well-executed firefight could rid us of all the civic and international damage he has left in his wake.

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  1. “Are you embarrassed by the vaguely racist and often paranoid accusations which have haunted our rhetoric and our relations with other states over the past 10 years? Blame Osama bin Laden.”

    Umm, no. “Vaguely racist and often paranoid accusations” were part and parcel of our relations with other states long before 9/11. Arguably, much of the Cold War was driven by “paranoid accusations,” and the body count in places like Vietnam and Central America were considered acceptable by what could be charitably be called a “vague racism.”

    “Are you frustrated by the loss of civil liberties which The Patriot Act represents? Blame Osama bin Laden.”

    True but incomplete: ask Japanese Americas in WWII or German Americans in WWI, or Randolph Bourne whether bin Laden was necessary for America to curtail civil liberties or treat entire swathes of its population as guilty until proven innocent. This kind of thing is in our cultural DNA — it doesn’t need Saudi millionaires to become active.

    This is not to say that the world isn’t a better place with OBL dead — but he knew we would react the way we did; he counted on it. Why? Because he knew us better than you give him credit for.

  2. Roberto, I don’t think I’m taking any credit away from Osama bin Laden–the man was smart, he knew the sort of thing that would hurt the American state, and he took actions to make that hurt a reality. And, as I think my first couple of paragraphs make clear, I am by no means claiming that in some grand moral sense we can invest OBL with all the negative weight of all which has followed since 9/11. But was he the real, efficient, precipitating cause of so many horrors, and so many bad decisions, which followed? From what I can tell, yes. And so I say he deserved it, the clever and evil–and perhaps most importantly, the prescient and manipulating–bastard.

  3. Blame bin Laden all you want, but regardless of his atrocities, the responsibility for how we respond to his actions lies in ourselves.

  4. Although there is a sense in which any aggressor or conspirator or murderer “deserves” to be deprived of his life, I am sincerely glad I didn’t have to do the ordering or the shooting. Mine is not the plea of a wimp who appreciates a peace no matter how it is brought about.

    I recognize that wrongs should be righted; but they are not righted by any sort of tit-for-tat moral calculation. It’s not a math problem. There is a lot of talk–see McCain’s statement among others (“The world is a better and more just place now that Osama bin Laden is no longer in it.”)–that the world is now automatically a better place than 24 hours ago. It’s as if the “evil deficit” has been ameliorated by last night’s killing raid. I don’t think morality works like that, and I doubt most folks who darken this particular internet doorstep think so either. From Dr. Fox’s remarks here, I think he, too, recognizes the ambiguity of the moment. But to assign desert causes yours truly a great deal of trepidation.

    Even if we thought morals worked arithmetically, is it really a moment for rejoicing, chanting? Were the folks at the White House and Ground Zero doing anything like what happened in much of the Arab world in the wake of 9/11? There will be rejoinders to this last point, and surely a distinction should be made between a circumscribed strike like yesterday’s and a massive indiscriminate attack on innocents–between a tactic designed for limited purposes and one designed for unlimited purposes. Surely this is right. But I never doubted the difference in the acts or their aims. I merely wondered at the possibile similarity of rejoicing in death. Solace, rest, consolation, closure for victims and their families: this is one thing; the general euphoria in many corners today seems to be altogether another. It seems altogether unfitting for those who have in recent days rejoiced in the Resurrection to wholeheartedly cheer yesterday’s events, no matter the deeds done by those who died.

  5. There are many needful and necessary things we do which despite our limited understanding should be confessed before God as a sin. I am not a sufficient theologian to speculate on God’s will on this matter, though I tend to find some comfort that I have heard the discomfort in many voices today. I have come to accept that sometimes in life we are given a choice where all paths lead us to confession. Perhaps this is (forgive me) a good thing. Perhaps it is because the choice is less important than our attendance to the altar. Lent is not so long and we are not so far from the Sunday of the Pharisee and the Publican, to forget which one we are called to be.

    The passage in Ezekiel 33:11 that everyone is quoting today has a larger context which is even more revealing. The righteous who abandon righteousness (and those who do not warn them) are destroyed, but the evil ones who when warned of their ways return to God will be treated as sons. A prefiguring of Christ, obviously, but also a word which penetrates my heart personally.

    Today, perhaps now that Bright Week is over, is a good day to rightly be reacquainted with our penitence.

  6. I’m not buying this at all. This Bin Laden business is just the next in an impossibly long and complex set of stories that’s impeded us from doing some serious cultural self-examination. What if, amidst our anger and sadness 10 years ago, we had also taken the time and had the humility to look inward? I’m not advocating self-blame, nor do I think we as a culture of people are free of responsibility, but I am trying to acknowledge that this is complex and that nothing short of mutual forgiveness can end a history of violence.

    To me, any buy-in to the idea that he deserved it stifles our ability to forgive him. Forgiveness obviously doesn’t sit right with many peoples’ sense of justice or their gut feeling that this guy caused the world a lot of pain, but responding to our pain with more pain isn’t an answer. It might not feel right or intuitive, but finding our own peace with what happened is the only way that, culturally, we’ll begin to be able to break cycles of violence.

  7. Drew writes, “Blame bin Laden all you want, but regardless of his atrocities, the responsibility for how we respond to his actions lies in ourselves.”

    This is true, only I’m not sure who your “we” is here. I surely didn’t pass the Patriot Act. I surely didn’t approve or support the TSA. I won’t take responsibility for these actions.

    And while we should blame American government and many lethargic Americans for these things, we can also recognize that they wouldn’t have happened as they did without the presence of that wicked man.

  8. To paraphrase Russell Crowe’s character in “Body of Lies”: “Ain’t nobody innocent in this shit.”

  9. This blame game strikes me as very childish . That he “deserved it” is not the unchristian part of this. We all deserve death. (Romans 6:23) That we should place the whole blame on him for our sinful (or plain stupid) responses to 9/11 is. (Psalm 4:4).

    Plus, half of those things were in the works before Osama’s meddling anyway.

  10. Mark Perkins writes: “This is true, only I’m not sure who your “we” is here. I surely didn’t pass the Patriot Act. I surely didn’t approve or support the TSA. I won’t take responsibility for these actions.”

    This is a separate question, but one only answerable in terms of the representativeness of representative government. Is what the Congress does what I prefer most of the time? No. Is it, in a sense, what I DO by being an American, by participating in our government processes, by living here, etc.? Yes.

    Much as Socrates points out to Callicles in the GORGIAS, politicians are themselves doing what the people wish them to do–not in a plebiscitary sort of way, but in a way that satisfies both our highest and lowest desires. Congress does what it does because we do what we do. And the “we” here is the “we” that buys from China, that guzzles up oil, that is selfish, that seeks revenge, that sins. I try to avoid doing all these things. Yet it’s still a “we.” I’m still involved and implicated. Disavowing responsibility isn’t the same as actually not being responsible for something.

  11. Russell I’ve appreciated your columns in the past, but I couldn’t read this without feeling great distress that there’s something wrong here. What is it?

    It’s not that he didn’t deserve it. Of course he did. He was well aware that this is what you will in all likelihood face when you take on our particular nation-state in the way he did. He accepted that risk in full knowledge of what was coming.

    No, what’s wrong, I think, is that “did he deserve it?” isn’t the real question needing to be asked.

    What is more, i don’t think it’s really the question you are asking, in fact.

    At the risk of doing some armchair analysis I have no credentials allowing me to do–and I don’t mean to offend, either–I think what you’re asking is, “May I rejoice?”

    And you’re trying as hard as you can to tie a whole lot of things you don’t like about America now around bin Laden’s neck so that you can.

    But as some commenters have noted, the changes of the ’00s have deep roots in the American experience.

    Just as one example, read about the Clinton administration’s attempts to get much of the Patriot Act passed in the ’90s, only to be frustrated by the Republicans (in Julian Zelizer’s ARSENAL OF DEMOCRACY, eg).

    Or read Andrew Bacevich’s piece in the Christian Science Monitor on how Osama and al Qaeda are just a small part of a long war that’s been going on since the 1960s (at least) by the US, aimed at preserving our dominating influence in the region (he calls it, echoing George H. W. Bush, “the war for the American way of life”).

    We are all tempted to oversimplify when faced with broad, impersonal, tectonic forces taking us where we prefer not to go. We want a face, we want a name, we want to believe we can pin-point the culprit, and if not always solve our dilemma by eliminating him, then at least to take solace in knowing who’s to blame.

    But as in most such moves, this just gives bin Laden too much credit.

  12. John,

    I think what you’re asking is, “May I rejoice?” And you’re trying as hard as you can to tie a whole lot of things you don’t like about America now around bin Laden’s neck so that you can.

    I appreciate your thoughtful comment, as it makes me think. I really don’t believe that what you’re suggesting about my thought process is correct, but it’s possible you’re on to something. As I wrote up this post Sunday night, I suppose I was thinking several things:

    1) That Osama bin Laden was plainly culpable in a process which left thousands of people dead, and was an indirect–if also, I think, in a Aristotelian sense, an ultimately efficient sense–cause for a war which has killed many thousands more.

    2) That OBL’s actions have, I believe, further served as a precipitating pretext or cause for a great deal of damage to our civil order.

    I think I recognized, as I was writing the piece, that 1) needed relatively little justification. But what about 2)? Why make a big deal about that? (This is a point which a friend of mine, Nate Oman, presses me on over at my own blog.) Why bother trying to, as you say, “oversimplify,” when the more obvious evil he has done is sufficient to support the claim made in my title? And especially since, as several commenters here have pointed out, all the matters contained in 2) actually had many precipitating causes, not just OBL, going back decades?

    I think, perhaps, it’s because I was listening to Obama’s speech, and I was aware of how his death was being reported on and celebrated as I wrote it, and the idea that killing him “served justice” was much on my mind. Putting it very simply, I’m worried about, and distrustful of, our collective tendency (mine too!) to engage in what Jeffrey has rightly labeled a “Girardian” tendency, the desire to make the life or death of the person–a simply matter of payback, or revenge, of symbolic victories–as morally significant in some grand sense. I don’t want to buy into that, but I wanted to show that OBL’s impact is more than simply the murder which his ideology resulted in. It is also the root of a paranoia and pathology which has embarrassed this nation for a decade (and which I, along with many others, in my own small way, contributed to). It was reasonable for his death to be made a primary foreign policy goal of the American state–not for the sake of “justice,” but for the frustratingly inevitable sake of exhausting the full extent of the whirlwind he unleashed.

    In looking back at the paragraph I just wrote, I think even I can see that I’m reaching. I don’t know what I’m reaching for, exactly. Some sweet spot of rhetoric, I guess, somewhere between the foolish, unChristian celebration that Jeffrey has rightly condemned, and the cynical attitude that says Osama bin Laden was no longer anything more than a notch on the belt of our military-industrial complex. He was bigger, far bigger than that. He legitimately “deserved” to feel the force of the nation he hurt. It’s just that that “desert” is so tied up in that “hurt” itself that there may be no separating it. Being aware of the extent of the hurt, not for the sake of blaming it all on in, but for the sake of seeing the enormity of what he helped get us into, is perhaps the first step, at least for me.

  13. Thanks for that thoughtful response. It strikes me that you,like a lot of people, including myself, are wrestling with a lot of things that we sense are tied up with this person, this event, and they are, let’s be frank, hard to sort out and articulate.

    We could congratulate ourselves at least that we’re not crudely oversimplifying, which is the easiest thing to do, and is typical of most responses.

    In the above I see you’re not oversimplifying at all, but trying to take it whole. The fact is, we were in a relationship with this man, and who he was affected us, just as who we are affected him.

    We know, for example, that such relationships change us–that’s why we study history. We also know that the interpretation that prevails is all important for policy making.

    Right now, we’re in a moment where that articulation is up for grabs, and you are pushing back at the jingo-istic oversimplification that will, inevitably, prevail, and reaching for a more, if I may say so, phenomenological narrative.

    I wish you well. As for me, I’m tempted to lean on Whitman, and just throw up my hands and say, the real killing of Osama bin Laden will never get in the history books.

  14. In a crowded world, War becomes the racket that keeps on giving. Backsheesh Economies, payola, Reconstruction Money siphoned off, arms sales, Homeland Security Budget growth…etc etc etc. The perversions which attend the War Racket will insure that nothing will essentially change with the Killing of a terrorist….they will pop up ad infinitum.

    The Neo-Conservatives should watch Fantasia and its replicating brooms if they have problems understanding the implications of their armchair war mongering.

    Osama was a bloodthirsty terrorist and now he is apparently dead while the Administration revises the story surrounding his death substantially and the pro-water-boarders croon about the wonderful results of their torture. Blame Osama bin Laden for what he did but to blame him for the feckless and damaging way we have been self-destructing since 2001 , despite the success of his “rope-a-dope” is to relieve the leadership of this country from the manifest mistakes they are continuing to make.

    After all, we helped train and season Mr. bin Laden against the Russians. A little exultation over a mass murderers comeuppance is to be expected but the joy should, at best, be bittersweet because the effects of the bin Laden “rope-a-dope” are going to be with us for a long time.

  15. D.W.,

    the effects of the bin Laden “rope-a-dope” are going to be with us for a long time.

    And that, unfortunately, is likely to turn out to be the truest thing said in this whole thread.

  16. I have to think the world is at least marginally better without Osama Bin Laden in it.

    But we’ll have to wait and see if his death changes anything. I wonder whether had there never been an Osama Bin Laden, we’d have just found a different monster to blame.

    After all, what is Big Brother without Emmanuel Goldstein?

  17. Wow, what a bunch of pantywaists! Put away your PMS translations of the Bible and grow a pair. The guy was bad, real bad, and he got what was coming to him and how. Of course the world is better without a mass murdering, Islamic terrorist.

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