Case in point: I've been thinking on the killing of Osama Bin Laden, announced only 6 hours ago, and the reaction that it has been getting; in the media, in the crowds, on twitter and among my friends. Having ruminated on it for not-long-enough, here is what I've gleaned about the world.
Most people are celebrating the end of Bin Laden like 2012 has come early. Whether it's at Ground Zero or in front of the White Hose, the death of the enemy has proven to be a party starter. Still, there's something odd about bringing a beach ball to your death celebration. It feels like a historic event of such gravity shouldn't be remembered as War-on-Terror-palooza. I mean, for those personally and intimately affected either by 9/11 or the War on Terror, I'm sure that affords you a certain amount of freedom in how you take the news. But students at George Washington University driving on down to the White House gates? Try and make it look less like a wicked awesome all-night rager. If your call is celebration, perhaps it should be done in a way that is more thoughtful and powerful than the way we celebrate Lakers championships.
It's not a question of whether joy is appropriate at the news of any death. I personally think that's alright, it's just that I was expecting more of a quiet sigh of relief, not Spring Break Part II.
Then, there's the opposite minority reaction, which is just as interesting and worth analyzing. I have seen friends and strangers react with a kind of trepidation to the news. It's not a political thing. There's a segment that are so dedicated to their Christianity that it will not allow them to rejoice in the death of someone - anyone - especially those who were unable to repent before death. After all, David mourned Saul. Then there's a segment that are so dedicated to their free thought and liberalism that they've put themselves into a position that every human life, no matter the evil that the life has done, is worth at least some value to someone somewhere, and therefore should not be celebrated.
These are, to me, equally strange reactions to bringing beach balls to your vengeance-based street party. I don't often like playing the middle of the road so as the never be truly be wrong and yet be above both sides, but it's hard for me in this situation to adhere to one way of thinking. I think a segment of progressives and liberals have a tendency to try and intellectualize this event in order to differentiate their reaction and politics. There's nothing wrong with that; it's kind of admirable in its idealism, albeit a bit unwieldy. The worst variation of this reaction are those trying to cull any modicum of sympathy for Bin Laden by trying to relate things like: He had a family, or some related attempt at insight that basically says someone somewhere liked him and they will be mourning.
Look, it's not like Jerry Falwell, a generally disgusting man, died and we were all wondering if it was in good taste to say good riddance. There is very little debate as to whether or not he had it coming. There is little wiggle room here. We judge people based on what they do at their worst, not whether or not they had a family or was human just like you and me. Hitler allegedly loved his dog. If the barometer for feeling not-bad about a guy dying is if he is, on some philosophical level, a worthy human life, then maybe we need to inch towards pragmatism a little more.
I get it. Celebrating a death feels weird. I admire the standard you hold yourself up to in that particular section of your personal philosophy. But I don't think it means other people are wrong to celebrate it. I don't think it means you have to do it, too. I think it makes sense for people to figure out what it means to them, on a personal level, if anything.
I understand that some of our skepticism prevents us from seeing any positive in the death of this one asshole. Although a major Al Qaeda figure, there is a jaded reaction among some people, who believe that this is in reality meaningless, that the wars and the cost and the erosion of rights are the real tragedies in all of this. On some level, they are right.
But to call it pointless or meaningless or unimpressive seems like a stretch - an antagonistic one, even. He was, after all, the main target, and after all the pain and loss, to finally be able to say "mission accomplished" is an amazing feat. We can debate if the road to the finish line was worth the trouble -- but don't take away from crossing the finish line. An era has ended and yeah, it's too early to tell how history will change from here, but at least we're at the end of a chapter. The next one may very well be more of the same, or even worse, but at least we can start writing it. At least there's a chance to write something new.
That's the gist of the most even handed reactions I've been reading. Some shock, some surprise, that sigh of relief. A wiping of the brow. The recognition that, after 10 long years, we can close a book on a chapter of American history. It's not closure to everyone, fine. But it is to some, and that has to be worth something.
The end of terrorism is a false, ill-defined and constantly moving goalpost, but right now, it helps, and points of optimism are few and far between. We take what we can get. It's only one singular point and the skies are not clear. Guantanamo, the Patriot Act, torture and the wars; a lot of damage has been done to get to this point. A lot of principles were compromised. The challenge now is to make this victory worth it. To undo the damage that had been done and to create a sense of healing. The emotional first response isn't the part that will echo through time, although it's all we can think about today. It's what we do with it from here on out.