In the late winter of 1953, my mother was a 15 year-old student at the International School in Geneva. One day, the entire student body was gathered for an unscheduled assembly, at which it was announced that Joseph Stalin had just died. The students (who came from all over the world) spontaneously cheered. The headmaster then gave them all a firm dressing down, reminding them that while some human beings are genuinely evil, no death is ever a cause for celebration.
I thought of that story last night when I heard the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death. And I’ve read with interest on Facebook, Twitter, and progressive blog sites an unfolding debate about what sorts of responses are appropriate. At times, it seems as if the debate over whether feminists could celebrate the royal wedding had simply morphed into a nearly identical bout of navel-gazing about whether progressives could rejoice (and if so, how much rejoicing was appropriate) in the aftermath of this American military operation in the heart of Pakistan.
I recall a similar debate on the left after Jerry Falwell’s death in 2007. In this thread at Feministe, disagreement broke out over how much celebration was appropriate following the passing of the arch-fundamentalist pastor turned right-wing activist. I made the mistake of saying “shame on” those who were jubilant, and was quickly reminded that Falwell himself had been an agent of shame in the lives of millions, particularly gays and lesbians. Those who had suffered more than I had because of that Baptist preacher didn’t need my moralizing about self-restraint. I learned an important lesson about scripting other people’s responses. My mother’s Swiss headmaster may have been right, but those of us who aren’t in his position need to be awfully careful not to prescribe (or proscribe) particular modes of grief or exultation.
My youngest students were only eight or nine when the Twin Towers fell nearly a decade ago. Osama Bin Laden has been a bogeyman figure for them, the man behind the plot that made their world (and that of their parents) so much less safe. The years and years in which he eluded justice became a symbol, at least for some, of the limits of American power. While television, movies, and video games featured heroes who could always get the bad guys, in real life the baddest guy alive continued to be out of reach, a phantom reminder of our vulnerability. It’s not surprising that the most impassioned and excited reactions I saw on Facebook and Twitter last night were from my youngest acquaintances. For many of my students, Bin Laden’s death ends a story that has been going on over half their lives.
Even if he was less in the news in recent years, even if he had been largely neutralized as a danger — he existed as a spectre, especially for the young. Little wonder that it was those who would have been in elementary school on September 11, 2001 who seemed most visible in the streets last night, shouting their patriotism and releasing a generational demon.
As for me, I’m glad he’s gone. I’m not heading out into the streets to wrap myself in Old Glory and chant “USA!”, but won’t begrudge those who did react with glee their celebration. I’ll think of my mother’s story about Stalin, about Ezekiel 33:11, and about the billions spent and the countless other lives lost in the wars that have unfolded since 2001. And I’ll not tell anyone how to respond to this news.