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.