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Archive for May, 2011

The 9/11 Tribute In Light

I guess I spoke too soon. People did eventually fill the streets in Lower Manhattan to cheer and wave flags Sunday night, wearing face paint and shouting “America No. 1!” But I was not wrong about the long, long process of closure. In fact, it seems like there’s a battle for the soul of American justice and how we pursue it.

As people cheered, there was a competing sentiment about Osama bin Laden’s death (perhaps even mine in my previous post) suggesting that this closure should be po-faced, grim and puritanical, that it should be a new opportunity to mourn, not a photo op moment to celebrate more bloodshed.

It’s pretty silly, after all, to say America is great because some Navy SEALs shot a supposedly unarmed guy in the head (I say, “supposedly” because the story corrections and equivocations continue to flow from the White House like an eruption of chocolate party fondue that never quite hardens. This ought be a clue to conspiracy theorists if many of them weren’t so beastly dumb: Even attempted transparency can be contradictory. Now that the White House has decided not to show the photos, you can prepare for years of headache-inducing “Osama’s Alive” stories.)

Almost immediately after Bin Laden went to heaven to claim his virgins, letters and comments and tweets and posts appeared condemning Americans’ jubilation, quoting and misquoting Martin Luther King’s admonitions about hating enemies. Many people on this New York Times’ mood meter summed up the general feeling of the minority: “I refuse to celebrate the death of any human being.” “I take no joy in yet another killing.” “The death of one person should not be celebrated, even to save thousands.” One of my favorite comments: “Anyone who thinks death or physical pain is a valid form of retribution for any crime is an absolutist.” A rhetoric lesson for the author: Anyone who starts a sentence with, “Anyone who …” is also an absolutist. Some Bertrand Russell might be in order for this gal.

You might think that last sentence was meant to be cute. It’s not. I, too, feel something less than glory in bin Laden’s death. But many of these critics are displaying an absolutism all their own.

The perception that people are in the streets cheering only at the blood is A SUBJECTIVE ONE that says a lot more about those who point it out than the people it aims to criticize. The statement willfully ignores other things Bin Laden’s death might mean to people, emotions of relief and hope. Certainly there were people at the WTC site shouting, “Let the dogs eat him.” Weren’t there? Well, yes, there is some of that as there would naturally be, and no, it’s not healthy. But I also heard a lot of other defensible sentiments more along the lines of “We got him. Or, “We did it,” and simply, “I’m proud of my country.” Maybe, “America No. 1.” It’s always likely that jingoism is going to be the order of a day like Sunday’s. To be fair, though, it’s kind of hard to put euphoria into words (just as it was hard to put into words the complicated reasons we were attacked in the first place–by a former ally, no less, with grudges that cut both ways).

But for those of you who only see a celebration of death Roman gladiator style, let me give it a try: This ain’t a sporting event, and we aren’t crazed football fans looking for a high. This was, arguably, our deliverance from ten years of a questionable moral universe in which a religious cult leader willing to murder thousands of people–secretaries, waiters, delivery drivers, security guards, airplane passengers, Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc.–was going to go unpunished mainly for political reasons: First, because our scurrilous U.S. president at the time decided to settle an unrelated score elsewhere, and second because the murderer was safe in the bosom of a chaotic nuclear power. As I said in my first post on this subject, many people celebrating in the streets on Sunday night were children when 9/11 happened, and many of them likely grew up disillusioned that the defining moment of their young lives was going to have an ambiguous, nihilistic conclusion. “Life isn’t fair,” is a hard thing to tell children, as is telling them that they could die instantly and violently for political reasons and the killers would go free. It’s an outlook that could easily lead to despair and erode many people’s sense of morality or accountability. Do you agree, moralists? Do you believe it’s OK to be happy that we’re freed from that reality, at least for the time being? Being happy, are we allowed to cheer? Being allowed to cheer, are we cheering in a way that’s chaste enough to clear the hurdle of your sanctimony?

But that’s the complicated argument. The real hypocrisy of the “humanists” this week is an obvious point they miss: Some of us are cheering because a couple of wars might come to an end, not because a guy got shot in the face. This is something fairly easy to see, unless you’re really, really inclined not to (or if your critical sword only cuts one way). This war, lest you forget, was in a lot of people’s minds about bringing Bin Laden to justice. His death doesn’t mean we’re leaving Afghanistan next week, of course, but the main symbol of our struggle, bin Laden, who ought to embody our entire casus belli, has been removed from the scene. That fact augurs peace, not to mention justice. It suggests deliverance from the nightmare that was the 2000s and the wars that defined the decade. Why is it not allowed for a moral person to celebrate that?

Yet self-proclaimed humanists choose not to look at it that way. Why? What’s the bias? Must they assume those of us who feel a sense of relief and satisfaction right now are just dancing in blood because we have violent ape natures and a nationalistic chauvinism and no reflection and no morality and life for us is like a particularly gruesome version of Battlefield 3?

My thought is that it’s a bit of a tip off, an advertisement of the critics’ conflicted and unhappy relationship with their country. How many of them, I dare ask, used 9/11 as a moment mainly to rip into U.S. foreign policy, as if suggesting that a cult religious figure kicked out of Saudi Arabia had right to avenge El Salvadorans, and in the confusion temporarily left their “humanism” at the door that day? Evidently, there were enough of them that they managed to turn Marxist Brit Christopher Hitchens into a U.S. right winger. I guess people really do have the power.

I, too, disliked a lot of American foreign policy both before and after 9/11 and believe America has committed crimes for which we ought to spend a few years in an international court. But that doesn’t blind me to the clear immorality of Bin Laden’s mass murder or to what his removal means: the possible deliverance from a violent person and a violent past, the need to live in the past with the twin specters of the World Trade Center and the need for more bloodshed.

Merry Christmas, humanists. War is over. Geddit?

Next: Why is it not OK to be happy that a mass murderer is not out mass murdering anymore? That’s kind of a perverse thing to ask for, isn’t it? Why should deliverance from that reality not be worth celebrating? Why is it not right to say, “Rot in hell, Osama!” to give comfort to yourself or others? Was it not OK for Jews to celebrate Hitler’s passing? Would you deny them that, or only deny it for yourself and your own countrymen? You might say all death diminishes us, even Hitler’s, that hatred demeans you, even if the mass murderer wouldn’t show you–or thousands of others–the same sympathy. To want to be better than your murderer is a fine goal. But warning: there is also perhaps a lack of self-regard in it. You wouldn’t force that morality on a rape victim, say, if she said she was glad her attacker had been killed. To say that one person must be allowed to live, to hate and sow new violence based on his medieval religious outlook is a form of extremism, too. Beware your own extremism if you’re going to denounce it in others.

Did bin Laden deserve a trial? Another good question. Remember that a trial of Osama bin Laden would have become a trial of his ideas. And that ought to lead you to this question: Do all ideas deserve trial? Do Hitler’s ideas deserve trial? (Ohhh! That comparison again. More on that later.) Does the madness of a murdering extremist refusing to participate in society (ours and his own) demand society’s channels of due process? Maybe. Would it be more important than emotional closure? Maybe. Is it realistic? No. The reasons for why that is will be debated forever and never answered to anybody’s satisfaction. The violence of one sometimes can’t be made square with the peace of the many. I’m not generally for the death penalty, but as Groucho Marx said, “for him I’ll make an exception.” Does that make me a sell-out to my own values or a person with a bit of depth perception?

OK, the Hitler argument. Isn’t it facile and self-serving to compare Bin Laden and Hitler? Let’s get quickly to the argument that festers underneath this like a hard-to-kill staph infection: Did America deserve 9/11 in the first place? Many people who smartly wheel in horror at mindless patriotism somehow turn dumb really quickly when it comes to mindless knee-jerk anti-patriotism, which they ought to realize is just as bad, especially if they are not willing to support their country doing something inherently good, such as protecting its citizens against a religious maniac. If you insist that every American citizen is guilty, regardless of party or philosophy or details on the ground, for what has happened in Nicaragua, East Timor, Angola, Iraq, etc.,  so guilty he or she, every one, is worthy of dying in a hijacking at the hands of an Islamic religious fundamentalist with an agenda specific to his own idea of God, your outlook can’t survive what we’d call humanism or rationality. It’s such a hopeless argument, I feel dumb even bringing it up. And yet every once in a while … I see that post or hear that argument: “You might not know this about 9/11, but America’s done some awful things…” So goes the critical insight of the new Mother Jones subscriber.

Yes, it’s better to take the moral high ground and not hate or take satisfaction in violence, because it doesn’t do your enemies any harm really, and it doesn’t do you any good either, to say nothing of your humanity. And yet, as much as I hate to say it, I think a fair burden of proof falls back on some of the “humanists” this week. Are you seeing hate in the streets because it’s there or sometimes because maybe you hate a little too? Why should I not feel relief and joy at being delivered from the past? Why do I have to explain myself to you?

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The 9/11 Tribute In Light

I was about to turn off my computer late Sunday night after resting my eyeballs on some mindless TV when all of a sudden, a quick scan of the New York Times shook my peace and ruined my planned sleep. Bin Laden dead. Bin Laden killed. He’s bin terminated. He’s a has Bin. He’s bin there done that.

The Upper East Side, the sleepiest part of the city that never sleeps, had already gone to bed. Two hours after the announcement, I’m still looking out the window on my beautiful city and its always changing landscape and seeing no gathering of people. The local ABC affiliate immediately ran out to Times Square after the announcement and the reporter gushed that it was filling up with people. Behind her, trash blew around in the deserted sidewalks. I highly recommend this clip to the producers of “The Soup” and perhaps Columbia Journalism School graduates who want to learn how to avoid embarrassing themselves.

But put aside the levity and let’s attack the meat of the matter:  The man who slaughtered almost 3000 innocent Americans 10 years ago is dead. The man who was willing to exploit American power for his own ends in Afghanistan until he decided he’d rather murder American civilians to impress psychopathic Islamic fundamentalists–is gone. The man who evaded capture for 10 years and told us what his real aim was–the restoration of the caliphate along the lines of the repressive Taliban, is obliterated.

I am one of those people who has never believed in the concept of closure, whether it’s political, spiritual or even romantic. People love closure the way they like crack–they promise this time is always the last time, and yet they always seem to want more of it after it’s over. So when my wife said to me tonight, as we watched the updates on ABC, that this entire thing felt anticlimactic, I knew exactly what she meant.

It feels that way for several reasons. One, the war is not over. Al Qaeda, what started out as an agreement over a table a couple of decades ago among a few rogue military leaders, one of whose rules was to have good manners, has metastasized into several networks with different leaders all vying for prestige and leadership over a restive culture of America-haters. Two, the relatively bloodless dispatch of Bin Laden in a raid on his compound in Pakistan reminds us of something we have all forgotten: He was just a man. He was not a God. He was not a country. He was not even much of an army. One of the biggest tragedies of 9/11 is that it showed us how a relatively small group of people can cause so much harm. We were attacked by a club, a mafia even, and the justice meted out was never going to compensate emotionally for the pain inflicted. It’s for similar reasons that we can’t accept the idea that Lee Harvey Oswald may have acted alone: How can one puny, limited, brutish person cause so many hopeful people so much grief? It’s for denial of that reality that America inevitably overreacted to 9/11 by invading not one but two countries, one of which had nothing to do with the attack.

The next reason it feels anticlimactic is that we will never get back the people we loved that day. As President Obama said, children are still missing fathers, husbands missing wives. Friends missing friends. The death of one man can’t make up for the pain of that either.

And finally, the reason bin Laden’s death feels anticlimactic is that we waited so horribly long for the day to arrive. For ten years, we had to live with the idea that the man who openly admitted to plotting the destruction of the World Trade Center was indeed sitting somewhere exactly where we imagined him–not in a cave fighting hand to hand but in a comfortable compound in Pakistan, in the nurturing bosom of friendly Pakistanis–drawing ten more years of breath. That was 10 years for many of us to get comfortable with some uncomfortable ideas–that life isn’t fair. That a mass murderer might indeed go unpunished. When George Bush announced at one point that bin Laden had been marginalized and was no longer a big deal, you might have read it the same way I did: He was practically promising that this account would not be reckoned. Now the mass murderer is indeed gone, but the uncomfortable idea remains. What if there had been no tip off last August? What if bin Laden had lived to a ripe old age? It was entirely possible. There were lots of Nazis, after all, who died peaceful deaths after spreading out to the four corners.

I think about this as I look at many of the faces gathering in Washington and Lower Manhattan on television. Many of them are young adults. A lot of them seem to have even been children in 2001. For them, 9/11 was likely the single most important political and philosophical experience of their lives, the event that forged their characters and their morality. It would be much harder for them to live the last 10 years with the same existential unease–that an evildoer would prevail. It doesn’t matter whether they lived in New York City and watched the World Trade Center smash into the ground (as I did) or whether they are willing to put the events in some sort of historical context (which I try to do, as painful as it can sometimes be). For them, bin Laden simply couldn’t be walking about freely in a moral universe. He had to go. I felt that way at one time. I was 31 on Sept. 11 in 2001 and the attack drove me to a despair I’d rather not describe. I had a hard time sleeping for a long time and the sound of planes gave me the creeps. For a few months, many New Yorkers lived with a grim, almost mordant pessimism that the end was near. But my hatred for bin Laden and my desire to see his lifeless corpse dragged through the streets behind a chariot yielded after a while. That kind of hatred did me no good.

But anticlimax or not, we’re still fighting a couple of wars (though Iraq is winding down). And probably the most important question raised by Osama bin Laden’s death is now this: Why are we over there? Osama bin Laden was for so long the answer to that question that you needed little other. But now the palimpsest has been erased. The central premise of our wars overseas has been removed. Though we might still be fighting networks that mean to harm America, we’ve now reached the point in which we remain present only to fight those who fight against our presence. The idea of Afghanistan slipping back into a Taliban-ruled violent, repressive theocracy is repugnant, but so are the accidental killings of civilians and the razing of towns by American forces and the funneling of American money into the pockets of Taliban leaders through public works projects. Now is the time to save face and ask if it’s time to leave. Barack Obama can have his own “Mission Accomplished” moment if he likes. It’s no sin to bug out if what we’re doing in Afghanistan is counterproductive and we got what we came for.

But I’ll sign off with this thought–I’m proud of my country tonight. As I was about to drag my sorry ass to bed, part of me wanted to throw on my clothes and go downtown at 2 in the morning to cheer with my fellow New Yorkers the removal of Osama bin Laden and his hatred from this planet. There is a narrow, joyless view that everything America does it does Energizer Bunny-like for money and oil. Sometimes, it happens, I’m sure. But a more expansive view might allow that Americans have altruism in them and that there is a goodness in us that is worth protecting. Naive perhaps, sometimes, about their own role in the world. But definitely capable of good.

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