What Celebrating Osama bin Laden’s Death Reveals About Ourselves
In the wake of the announcement that Osama bin Laden has been killed by U.S. Special Forces, his life and death (both saturated in controversy) merit reflection. Heproudly laid claim to killing nearly 3000 people in a single day, and openly touted his financial and military support for numerous other attacks on humankind. The man lived with the intent to oust any person or regime that threatened his goals of a dogmatic Islamic government and a Middle East free of American-sponsored dictators and military occupations. He even penned a fatwa in which he prescribed the killing of Americans as a duty of all Muslims.1 Bin Laden has also come to exemplify all that is evil about Arabs and Muslims in the corporate American media. So it is understandable that Americans would react strongly to the news of his death.
But the reaction of many Americans to the announcement of bin Laden’s death is both shortsighted and troublesome, for it appears that they would have cheered even if military officials had dragged his mangled body behind an Abrams tank while setting off red, white, and blue fireworks.
Headlines stretched across newspapers decrying his death: “We Got the Bastard” on the Philadelphia Daily News, “Got Him! Vengeance At Last – US Got the Bastard” on the New York Post, and “Got Him, Shot Him” on the Tampa Bay Times. The New York Daily News unabashedly published “ROT IN HELL” on their cover next to a photograph of the deceased mastermind. Twitter and Facebook feeds exploded with angry, hate-filled sentiments toward bin Laden and his remaining followers.
Americans gathered to celebrate in front of the White House at around 3am Monday morning after President Obama announced Osama bin Laden's death. (Photo by Robb Hill)
Due to the impenitent violence bin Laden openly called upon against the U.S., these reactions are not altogether undeserved.. But perhaps the most distasteful of all reactions are the photographs and news reels of Americans jumping and shouting in front of the White House, at the Phillies vs. Mets baseball game, in throngs on college campuses, and at the fast food store Qdoba where patrons received one dollar off their meal for screaming, “USA! USA! USA!”
The irony of such a reaction is that we, as a nation, were mortified by the reaction of those who celebrated the success of bin Laden’s attacks on September 11 and held them in contempt of such veneration of violence. We fervently defended the sanctity of life and deemed their behavior tactless and abhorrent; and yet footage of a rally at the White House on May 1, 2011 displays the same puffery, the same jingoism, and the same cacophony of wanton euphoria over death. In retrospect such news reports of the dancing Muslims were declared an operative tool used by Western media to garner support against the angry, anti-American Muslim trope. Couldn’t anti-Americans use the same argument, using footage of celebrating Americans to further their cause? The fact that we as a nation denounced such activity but now ourselves are exercising it speaks to the nature in which we operate as ambassadors of Western ethics.
This isn’t to say that bin Laden’s death is synonymous to the loss of the thousands of innocent lives snuffed out on his command. There is no disputing that bin Laden was an evil man. But we cannot afford to be so disillusioned to think that by killing one man we have somehow managed to overthrow terrorism. A cycle of retaliation—that is, seeking retribution for the killers—is not a sustainable measure by which to ensure peace.
Bin Laden knew himself to be a marked man. But our nation’s loudmouthed lauding of death deserves attention. President Barack Obama said in his televised address that by killing bin Laden “justice had been served.” But there is no justice in death, only vengeance. We did not bring bin Laden to justice because he was not properly tried or convicted. Certainly, a trial against bin Laden would have been wrought with legal complexities. He was an international war criminal for his relentless campaign against civilians the world over and deserved to face an international court, not an American one. As the leader of al-Qaeda, a trial would have set a legal precedent as to the gross immorality and unlawfulness of his movement to his followers.
The fact that we killed, not captured, a man reasonably charged with orchestrating the attacks on September 11 signifies that our national interest is not in the ethical implementation of democracy (as we so claim) but in the fall of our mythologized enemies. His killing conflicts with Executive Order 11905,2 issued by President Ford, which states: “No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.” Targeted killing is explicitly prohibited by international law. Additionally, U.S. law requires that legal justification be presented when a life is taken. Without such proof, and certainly without the body of bin Laden, no evidence remains to support the claim that our military acted out of necessity. Instead, our government prided themselves that they gave him a “proper” Muslim burial, though no evidence exists to support that he was buried with adherence to Islamic tradition, and a burial at sea would not conform to such.3
Yet the disregard for domestic and international law that has come to characterize our military endeavors was not considered—instead, it was celebrated. No justice will be realized when we allow ourselves to extol violence in exchange for commodified patriotism. The misnomer between patriotism and nationalism can and must be distinguished and discussed. Lockstep partisanship to a government or ideology fails to allow for any such distinction.
There is nothing unpatriotic in not celebrating bin Laden’s death or in reflecting somberly on that clear morning in early fall when thousands of innocent people lost their lives at the hands of hatred and bigotry. Our military has spent a decade searching for a man many believed could not be traced. We’ve exhausted our country’s financial and military resources for a war that has wrought death, destruction, and bitter anger. Evil is still abroad, but it is still at home, too. The eternal return of terror will haunt our country and the rest of the world, by one name or another.
Let the day not be lost to the celebration of the demise of one, but instead as a remembrance of thousands, in both the East and West, who have suffered the consequences of blind obedience to violent ideologies.
Editor's note: Share your thoughts on this essay by sending an e-mail to letters [at] mantlethought.org (subject: In%20regards%20to%20Rethinking%20Retribution) (letters(at)mantlethought.org.) For a different take on this subject, see Ed Hancox's blog post here.
May 5, 2011
frontispiece and photo by Robb Hill, www.robbhill.com. Used with permission.
2. President Gerald R. Ford’s Executive Oder 1190: United States Foreign Intelligence Activities was issued on February 18, 1976. View the order here: http://www.fordlibrarymuseum.gov/library/speeches/760110e.htm.
3. Ian Black and Brian Whitaker. “Sea Burial of Osama bin Laden Breaks Sharia Law, Say Muslim Scholars,” The Guardian (May 2, 2011): http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/may/02/sea-burial-osama-bin-laden.Al-Qaeda, Justice, Law, Osama bin Laden, United States