© Keith McWalter 2011
There was a moment shortly after 9/11 when we as a nation were struggling to find the right response. As individuals we felt grief, and outrage, and compassion for those whose lives were brutally ended on a sunny fall day, and for those who loved them. And we felt anger at such a monumental act of sheer evil.
But as a nation, once we turned from mourning, what were we to do? There were no obvious or immediate means of retribution. There was a moment then when we might have refused to respond as the perpetrators no doubt wished and expected we would – in anger, and with power, in an ultimately futile attempt to right the unrightable. We might have acted as the religiously devout nation we make ourselves out to be, invoked the higher moral principles that undergird our society, and turned away from an emulation of the violence that had been visited upon us. We might have exerted moral suasion on every nation of the world openly to condemn the awful deeds of 9/11 and the men who committed them, and to hunt them down not for summary execution on the battlefield, but in order to bring them to the brand of justice that we actually believe in here in this country founded by philosophers but populated for over two centuries by the rebellious and the dispossessed.
That moment passed, and of course we went a different way, down a path of retribution fogged by anger and bad logic, the way of self-perceived hegemonists rather than the way of those who know that what separates us, and our enemies, from the tragic fate of those in the towers is nothing but circumstance, and a little time.
That time ran out for Osama bin Laden last Sunday, and our first reaction is, naturally, jubilation that our basest sense of justice, unburdened by the niceties of religion and law, has finally been answered by a bullet (or perhaps several) to the head of one of the most contemptible and dangerous men to walk the planet in a generation. This is vengeance, pure and simple, straight out of every cowboy melodrama we grew up with, and we cannot help but rejoice in it, even though the God of our fathers told them that vengeance was his alone.
Along with the satisfaction of vengeance comes a feeling of moral and technical superiority reaffirmed. This long-sought outcome was realized, after all, only because a few surpassingly well-trained and wildly brave men took on a hugely dangerous, difficult task, and accomplished it essentially to the letter. Find this evil man in his lair, and kill him. They did it, losing not one of their own in the process. They are the closest thing to superheroes that we have in the real world, and make it possible to believe again that sheer competence and bravery prevails in the end over mere cunning and opportunism.
And yet and yet. It is an odd thing to see Americans cheer wildly in the streets over a death, any death, even one as welcome and deserved as this one. Over the end of a war, certainly. Over the human accomplishment of a moon landing or a World Series won, of course. But over a killing, no matter how justified? Strange. We usually don’t see young women doing cheerleader flips at executions. Wise that the SEALs disposed of bin Laden’s body at sea, lest there be calls to have it dragged jubilantly through the streets of New York. I doubt they cheered. There is a seriousness to true warriors, and a respect for death itself, that would not have permitted it.
We are left to wonder how many lives and how much treasure might have been saved if bin Laden’s execution had been accomplished in 2002 in Tora Bora rather than last Sunday in Abbottabad; if our need for vengeance and a semblance of closure had been satisfied then and there rather than pursued by proxy in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As it is, we have the brief but intense satisfaction that an old enemy is dead to lighten ever so slightly the burden of grief and moral outrage that we have carried for almost ten years.
It is a kind of justice.