Below is the last of a series of three posts occasioned by the death of Osama bin Laden.
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Confession of an American Patriot
(Osama bin Laden in Memoriam)
The death of Osama bin Laden reawakened in me, to my own great surprise, a long dormant American patriotism. That patriotism, however, takes no pride in the success of America in finally killing him–at long last, after nearly a decade’s sustained effort, and at incredible financial, moral, and human expense. Far from it, as I hope to explain.
After the death of Osama bin Laden was announced, spontaneous public celebrations broke out in the streets of Washington, D. C., and some other cities in the United States. Many more Americans who did not literally dance in the streets were nevertheless gladdened by the news to varying degrees. On the other hand, there were at least some Americans, myself included, whose emotional response to the news of bin Laden’s death was altogether different. It carried no air of celebration but instead came closer, in fact, to despondency—a despondency, in effect, that with his death the door of an important opportunity had somehow been closed.
I want to add immediately, that my despondency had nothing to do with sharing bin Laden’s goals or methods, or in any other way identifying with him positively. That was not at all the issue.
Nor did my sense of despondency in the face of bin Laden’s death have anything to do with his death closing the door on the possibility of any sort of eventual “reconciliation” between him, or at least those around the world for whom he may have stood, to one degree or another, as an expression of their own deep discontent with all they had come to associate with “America,” including any claim to American global hegemony after the end of the Cold War. I entertain no such idealistic illusions, and that was not the option over the loss of which I felt despondent when I learned bin Laden had been killed.
Finally, coupled with that illusory idea of some such general “reconciliation” being possible, my despondency also had nothing to do with any notion of some sort of American “forgiveness” being eventually extended to bin Laden or what his name had come to represent. With regard to all such notions of forgiveness, as well as those of reconciliation, I emphatically agree with Auschwitz survivor Jean Améry that there are some crimes and violations that are never to be forgiven, and some loses to which one is never to be reconciled is possible. In the face of such crimes and such loses, in fact, the very ideas of “forgiveness” and “reconciliation” even become morally offensive.*
At any rate, I do not regard any such forgiveness or reconciliation as a genuine option in the case of al-Qaeda, bin Laden, and September 11. Rather than being a matter either of some sort of rehabilitation or of some sort of forgiveness, the option I experienced as unfortunately closed off by the killing of bin Laden was a matter precisely of not substituting either of those pseudo-options for genuine healing, but instead insisting on keeping the wound open. In effect, what I experienced as regrettable was that exactly by killing bin Laden a sham “closure” was put forward as the only possible way to try to “heal” the wounds he, or all that his name had been made to stand for, had inflicted on so many. What somehow offended me his killing and the celebrations of his death, or at least offended whatever it was in me that, to my own surprise, responded affectively to the news of that death and those celebrations, was the very idea that by the American success in killing him the whole horrible story of “September 11” had somehow been brought closer to some sort of eventual closur.
So far as I was or am able to see, the very idea that such stories ever do end—that such wounds can ever be closed—is what is truly offensive. Killing bin Laden, given the entire social-historical context in which it took place, perpetrated the lie that the story of what he had done was now at last “over,” or at least nearer to being over than it could ever be if he had not been killed. In truth, in the most important sense that story will never be over, most certainly and most especially for anyone who genuinely cared for or about those who died on September 11, 2001. The very idea that there should be some eventual “closure” around the deep wounds opened on that day is a dishonoring of those dead loved ones themselves, in my own conviction.
For me, then, celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden as though that death somehow brings “closure” to the wounds inflicted upon Americans by the attacks he launched against the United States on September 11, 2001, dishonors the very victims of those attacks, and most especially the memory of those who died in them. Insofar as the success of the American mission to kill bin Laden fosters just such an illusion that we have attained any such “closure” around September 11, 2001, that success effectively shuts and bars the door of opportunity for any genuine healing around the wounds inflicted on so many that day to occur.
Any genuine healing could only come from facing squarely–at long last, nearly a decade later—what September 11, 2001, gave us to face, rather than just continuing to avoid it in one way or another. However, just such avoidance is exactly what all the official American governmental responses since that day have practiced. That process, in turn, has not only brought in its train a still ongoing, progressive erosion of all Americans’ civil rights, but has also squandered the international good will towards America that the attacks themselves initially engendered. Most destructively of all, it has strengthened–as it still continues to this day to do–the very American exclusionary, unilateral particularism that, in the eyes of many around the world who experience themselves as being thereby excluded and “marginalized,” lends an air of legitimacy precisely to such acts as al-Qaeda and bin Laden perpetrated against America on that day, nearly a decade ago now. It thereby betrays America itself, in its own name. Objectively considered, it gives aid and comfort to the enemy–and so does celebrating its success.
Some commentators have maintained that the celebrations that broke out in Washington, D. C., and other American cities when the death of Osama bin Laden was announced should be read not so much as ghoulish celebrations of that death itself, but rather as affirmations of American solidarity across all the divisions that all too often and too easily separate us Americans from one another. In that interpretation, those celebrations of bin Laden’s death are actually the same in intent and meaning as the various spontaneous affirmations of American solidarity after the September 11 attacks—and, for that matter, all the affirmations of solidarity with America on the part of others, such as all the French citizens who enthusiastically agreed with the cover headline “We are all Americans now” that appeared in Le Monde the morning after the attacks.
Surely, such commentators argued, any “objective” assessment of American celebrations at hearing the news of bin Laden’s death must acknowledge that such affirmation of American solidarity was what was really being celebrated, and not anyone’s death as such, not even the well-deserved death of such a terrorist killer as Osama bin Laden. Surely we should not lose sight of that positive core of such celebrations, in our professed moral abhorrence of dancing on anyone’s grave, no matter how legitimate such abhorrence may be on its own terms.
In fact, I have myself argued along similar lines, especially in my post before this one, the second post in this series of three that I am now completing. It is important, I there argued, not to confuse rejection of the excesses and other distortions that can so easily emerge in the wake of such events as the French Revolution of 1789 or the recent popular overthrow of the Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt, on the one hand, with rejection of the spontaneous impulse to celebrate the genuinely positive and liberatory aspects at the core of those very same events, on the other. Such moments of the liberation and positive self-affirmation of peoples truly and loudly do call out for celebration. We should celebrate them, even and especially when we are careful to reject the negative excesses and distortions that all too often follow such acts of positive liberation. So I argued, and so I still strongly maintain.
Thus, to use the example at the heart of my preceding post, the legitimacy of the public celebration in the streets of Cairo when the popular Egyptian uprising succeeded in overthrowing Mubarak is not diminished by the fact that television journalist Laura Logan was brutally sexually assaulted by some of the celebrants in the crowds that evening. Similarly, as Kant observed, the spontaneous upsurge of joy that he and others of like mind experienced when hearing of the French Revolution in 1789 was not invalidated by his horror at the subsequent bloodshed that momentous event occasioned, including that of the Terror. In sum, to repeat, such moments of liberation as the French Revolution or the popular uprising against Mubarak should be celebrated, and it is important never to lose sight of that fact, even and especially when the event of liberation unleashes subsequent violence that deserves and even demands condemnation.
Accordingly, someone might object to my despondency in the face of the spontaneous celebratory demonstrations with which many Americans greeted the news of the death of Osama bin Laden, isn’t it legitimate and important to celebrate American solidarity and pride in America, even if that celebration is occasioned by news of some death? Shouldn’t Americans take pride in their country, and be glad to affirm their solidarity with one another as Americans, by celebrating America’s successes after long national efforts? And isn’t it important always to keep that in mind, even and especially in those cases where Americans themselves find much to criticize in specific American policies and actions? Wasn’t it just such pride and solidarity that were really being affirmed in the celebrations of bin Laden’s death, as more than one commentator explicitly argued at the time, as already observed?
The analogy, however, does not hold. The appearance that it does arises from overlooking a crucial difference between the two cases of celebration of the popular uprising against Mubarak and the French Revolution, on the one hand, and that of the celebration of the death of bin Laden, on the other. The common ground for celebration in the first two cases was joy at the assertion of human freedom through resistance against oppression. It was the spontaneous upsurge of affirmative feeling toward that assertion that united all the celebrants with one another. The experience of sharing a strong, important bond with one another, regardless of how close or distant each individually may have been to the scene of the events being celebrated, regardless of how directly or indirectly each was affected by those events, and, finally, regardless of the intensity of the impact of the events on each individual’s personal life, was the very heart and meaning of those two celebrations. Thus, for example, the feeling of joy and affirmation Kant felt in distant Königsberg, East Prussia, when he heard the news of the French Revolution united him not only with those who had actively revolted in Paris and elsewhere in France, but also with all those other individuals anywhere, known or unknown to Kant, who registered like him the event of the French Revolution in the same sort of spontaneously affirmative affect he experienced himself in the face of that event. The quick dance of Kant’s heart at the news of the Revolution revealed concretely his membership in the universal human community, the community of all persons anywhere who still have hearts to be affected with joy at the news of any event of human liberation, regardless of where it may be or whom it may directly benefit materially. In effect, the leaping for joy of Kant’s old heart at the news of the French Revolution was Kant’s declaration that, on the day of the Revolution, that old Prussian Kant was a Frenchman too.
It was that same genuinely universal human community—a community that excludes no one, but is open to all individual human beings without exception—that affirmed itself whenever and wherever someone’s heart leapt for joy, even if only for the briefest instant and with the lowest intensity, at the news of the success of the popular Egyptian uprising against Mubarak. Such leaps of the heart were affective declarations, at the end of that fine day in which the people of Egypt overthrew Mubarak, of solidarity with those Egyptian people. It was the declaration by all those so affected that they were all Egyptians now too.
In effect, the French people who celebrated their successful revolt in 1789 invited everyone of good will everywhere to be French too on that now distant day. The Egyptian people who celebrated their successful revolt in 2011 invited everyone of good will everywhere to be Egyptian too that much more recent day.
In sharp contrast, the Americans who came together with one another to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden issued a very different invitation. First of all, the invitation they issues was not one addressed to everyone of good will everywhere, but only to those who, regardless of how good or ill their will might be overall, “identified” with “America,” and who, so identifying, supported the American “war on terror” and the attendant driven, compulsive mission to kill bin Laden that had at last been accomplished, thereby killing the number one American public terrorist of them all, Osama bin Laden himself.
It is, of course, understandable and perfectly reasonable that many Americans may have experienced a sense of relief at the news of bin Laden’s death. After all, ever since September 11, 2001, American governmental and the mainstream mass media had indeed consistently and dunningly repeated the characterization of bin Laden as the very personification of evil, fanatic anti-American “terrorism,” and as the very embodiment of everything that threatened American “security.” To the extent one accepted that depiction, the killing of bin Laden would naturally have brought the sense of relief that invariably comes when one experiences the sudden, unexpected removal of what has long been perceived as a horrible threat. Nor is it in the least unreasonable or unusual that anyone experiencing such joyous relief would want to join with others who have lived under the same threat to celebrate their common deliverance.
Precisely such spontaneous joy and gratitude for having survived a serious, long term threat is the undeniably legitimate aspect of the celebrations with which many Americans greeted the news of bin Laden’s death. To that degree, in fact, those celebrations belong to the same general category as do spontaneous celebrations at surviving some natural catastrophe such as a hurricane or a tsunami. They do not, however, belong to the same category as do such celebrations of newly gained liberty and assertion of common human dignity as took place in Cairo at the overthrow of Mubarak.
Even more importantly, joy at surviving a shared threat or catastrophe, and affirmation of solidarity with all other survivors, near or far, does not as such exclude anyone. Rather, it invites even those who were not directly threatened to celebrate with and for those survivors who were directly affected, and to experience solidarity with them. To that degree, such celebrations at sheer survival are indeed like those in which it is liberty and resistance to oppression that are celebrated, insofar as celebrations of both kinds foster the same sense of genuinely universal human community. To just that same degree, however, celebrations at surviving threat or catastrophe as such have nothing to do with forging exclusionary nationalistic bonds, or exclusionary bonds of any sort, for that matter. Insofar as they come to be used for such purposes, they get co-opted and badly distorted by external forces.
That is exactly what happened in the case of the perfectly reasonable relief—perfectly reasonable within the context of nearly a decade’s worth of dunning propaganda whipping up feelings of threat and danger in connection with his very name–that many Americans and friends or allies of America around the world experienced at hearing of the death of bin Laden. Thanks in large part to that very same propaganda, that spontaneous sense of relief was distorted away from its own inherent tendency to breach borders and boundaries, and diverted into serving further to rigidify an exclusive sense of American entitlement.
It is at this point that I can at last come back to where I began this long post. That is, I am now in position to explain why it was the very news that bin Laden had been killed that reawakened me, to my own surprise, to patriotism and pride in America. Years of anger and shame at official American governmental actions and policies had managed to bury that patriotism and pride so deeply that I did not really think I still had any of it, until my visceral reaction to the news of bin Laden’s death made me realize it was indeed still there.
It lay, in fact, at the heart of the unexpected mix of despondency for an option squandered, on the one hand, and anger in the face of so many Americans celebrating gleefully, on the other, that spontaneously arose in me when I opened the daily paper on the morning after the announcement that bin Laden had been killed, and saw the headline proclaiming him dead coupled with a picture of the gleeful celebrants who had gathered outside the Whitehouse after that announcement.
Though I was not able to articulate it clearly to myself at that same moment, later reflection showed me that what was surfacing in the mix of despondency and anger I felt then was precisely my long buried American patriotism. My anger, especially, was directed, not at those Americans who had spontaneously celebrated bin Laden’s death, but rather at how deeply the official American governmental response to September 11, 2001, a response encapsulated in the killing of bin Laden, and the gleeful celebrations the announced success of the long (and long frustrated) American mission to kill him, actually defiled America, in America’s very name, and then compounded the offense by duping Americans into celebrating that very defilement.
My despondency, in turn, was over the lost opportunity for America to live up to its own promise—despondency, in effect, at America’s betrayal of its own best self. In turn, how deeply and viscerally that defilement and that betrayal, to my own great surprise, still moved me bore testimony to the continued strength, despite everything, of my underlying self-identification as an American.
Put just a bit differently, what hit me that morning was exactly how contrary the fanatical mission against bin Laden and the whole fanatical “war on terror” really was to everything I had been taught from my very birth to expect of my own country. It ran flatly and egregiously contrary most especially to my own country, America, precisely because that very country had been founded in the first place in the very name of universal human dignity and freedom. So, at least, I had been taught. I was struck viscerally that morning–and only later, upon reflection, intellectually–by how truly unpatriotic the whole compulsive mission to kill Osama bin Laden, and all the celebration when that mission finally succeeded, at such unimaginably great financial, moral, and human cost, really was.
No country would be dignified by such destructive, self-centered, obsessive behavior. Such things should be beneath the dignity of every country, and shameful to each and every one. However, to perpetrate such behavior in the name of America, which is my country, makes it most especially offensive, given the very idea and image of America that I and virtually all other Americans of my generation were brought up to believe. It flies directly in the face of everything we were ever taught America stands for, and that every American has the right not only to expect but also even to demand of his or her country. If America does not struggle to remain “the last best hope of mankind” as Lincoln claimed it to be—“mankind” as such, humanity universally, not just this or that supposedly exceptional, privileged subset of men–then America betrays not only Lincoln but also all other Americans, including me: It betrays itself.
Anyone proud to be an American, any patriotic American, owes it to America not to let that happen, at least without strong, principled, enduring protest. “American exceptionalism,” “American exclusivism,” and “American nationalism” are all oxymoronic. All such offensive, divisive, discriminatory things as exceptionalism, exclusivism, and nationalism are, in truth, radically un-American by their very nature. Any patriot who takes pride in being an American must condemn them, especially whenever and wherever they are put forth in the very name of America itself. Our patriotic duty as Americans requires nothing less of us.
I have been surprised to discover how deeply I am still proud to be an American, and that discovery in turn has reawakened my patriotism, which I thought had been altogether extinguished long ago. As a result, I am no longer willing to let bogus patriots, whose sham patriotism defiles my country, lay claim to that title, robbing genuine Americans such as myself of it. I claim it back from them.
Thus, it was the death of Osama bin Laden that finally, after many years, has now allowed me to reclaim my own patriotism and pride in being American, reclaim both at long last from those who for so long have worked to rob me of them. For that, I honor his memory.
* By mentioning Améry in that context, I am not in the least trying to suggest that the deeds done in al-Qaeda’s or bin Laden’s name, including especially the attacks of September 11, 2001, are somehow equivalent to the Nazi genocide against the Jews. They are not at all equivalent; and it would be no less offensive, in my judgment, to suggest that they are, than it was offensive, in the judgment of many, when Ward Churchill referred to those who died in the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, as a bunch of “little Eichmanns.”