I was one of those people who rejoiced at the news of Osama bin Laden’s death, and smiled at the pictures of those college kids celebrating in front of the White House. I saw the headline when I opened my laptop to do a late-night email check, then called out to my girlfriend, “Hey, they killed bin Laden, turn on the TV, the president’s going to address the nation!”
Compound stormed, big firefight, world’s leading terrorist, an armed and dangerous combatant, gets killed in battle—case closed. Like a Marine, this man always had his weapon handy, so of course he had taken up his AK-47 by the time those Navy SEALs got to his third-floor bedroom: of course he had offered resistance.
Except that he hadn’t. Within twenty-four hours the story changed, to acknowledge the fact that armed resistance came from everybody but bin Laden and his wife. The firefight was over when the SEALs burst into his bedroom, twenty minutes after landing by helicopter in the compound. The man was standing, clearly aware that armed combatants were coming for him, but the AK-47 was leaning against the wall when they arrived.
Well, all right, resistance doesn’t have to be armed to be dangerous or lethal. Still. Why was that man waiting, unarmed, as assailants approached?
What set me to rethinking my own initial response to this killing was not Michael Moore’s lament about the betrayal of American legal/constitutional traditions. The so-called war on terror is a debate on what that tradition means and requires in wartime, so to invoke it is to ask a question, not provide an answer, and the very meaning of war is a result of the same debate.
No, what set me off were the social science explanations of how very “human” the need for revenge or retaliation is, and op-eds from the likes of Maureen Dowd and Roger Cohen, telling us how to be proud of our achievement. Yeah, those retaliatory and celebratory urges are “human” all right. Since when is that a compliment to the species that perfected the systematic slaughter of modern, total war?
And what, exactly, is supposed to make us proud? Dowd and Cohen, who are skeptical, even cynical, about everything except Leon Wieseltier and their own ability to decipher mendacity, sink to this occasion with purply patriotic prose that will someday embarrass them.
Here’s the alliterative, paratactical, quasi-biblical Maureen: “We briefly celebrated one of the few clear-cut military victories we’ve had in a long time, a win that made us feel like Americans again—smart and strong and capable of finding our enemies and striking back at them without getting trapped in multi-trillion dollar Groundhog Day occupations.”
We’re Americans by virtue of our military prowess, our victories? When did Dowd buy into the Bush-Cheney line, which reduced our country to the principal belligerent, the “hyperpower” capable of any atrocity, anywhere on the planet, at a moment’s notice? What happened to the notion that counter-terrorism, like counter-insurgency, is a political project, not a military problem? What happened to the humility induced by our compromise in Korea and our defeat in Vietnam?
Here’s the cerebral, laconic, digressive Cohen, who ends by quoting Rilke on Cezanne: killing bin Laden was “an extraordinary achievement that put to rest a gnawing American self-doubt,” in part because it was “the work of a team, indivisible and invisible.” He really hates the “chattering classes” for complaining that this was murder rather than death dictated by the rules of war: “If there is greater fatuity than second-guessing the split-second decisions of commandos confronted by gunfire, knowing the compound may be wired to explode, and hunting a serial mass murderer unwilling to surrender, then I am unaware of it. Let post-modern, pacifist Germans agonize, and whoever else wishes to writhe on a pin. The rest of us can be satisfied.”
Really? Since when is self-doubt something that Americans must put to rest? To be an American is to argue about what it means to be an American, because we have no national origin, linguistic affinity, or ethnic identity in common. What we do share is the consequent urge to narrate the past, to live forward by understanding backward—only the stories we tell about where we come from can make us legitimate narrators of the future. In this sense, self-doubt is as American as apple pie and violence: it’s our way of acknowledging that there are two sides to every story, even the ones that tell us how we got to where we are.
But here’s the thing, here’s the nagging detail. A military victory? Commandos confronted by gunfire? Bin Laden was standing in his third-floor bedroom, waiting for what he knew were armed assailants bent on his capture or death. He wasn’t holding the AK-47, and he didn’t reach for it, either, not even after twenty minutes of commotion and gunfire in the compound. Why not?
He was waiting for America to do the right thing and take him alive, not to conduct an “extra-judicial execution,” or “targeted assassination,” acts that contravene international law, a U.S. executive order of 1975, and a special UN report of 1998. Osama bin Laden was waiting for what the American military would have done in 1945, when it was hunting that previously memorable “serial mass murderer,” Adolf Hitler. He was hoping to be put on the stand, where he could indict the American Empire in an international court of law, in a grand, world-scale reprise of Fidel Castro’s speech before sentencing.
That’s what set me off. The man was waiting and wanting to be captured, assuming the American legal tradition would protect him, even in a time of war. Like the hopeful, hapless Michael Moore, Osama bin Laden believed more deeply in that tradition than our leading journalists, and maybe the rest of us. But then he probably wasn’t paying close enough attention to us for these last ten years, as we evolved into a print culture that, like a reality TV show, requires retaliation and revenge.
James Livingston is Professor of History at Rutgers University. His latest book is The World Turned Inside Out: American Thought and Culture at the End of the 20th Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009). He blogs at politicsandletters.com.