Osama and the policing of joy

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.

28 thoughts on “Osama and the policing of joy

  1. I love this article, I like that you chose not to judge people on their reactions towards Osama’s death, because I think a lot of people have their reasons as to what reactions they chose to give… I love this :)

  2. Would a similar logic apply to those who famously danced in joy when the Twin Towers went down? People who suffered – mostly in far less abstract and more concrete terms – from the actions of the US, and were happy to see a blow being struck against it.

    Isn’t a better approach to argue that celebrating the death – particularly the killing of someone – is a bad thing to do, albeit an understandable one by those who were directly and massively injured by the deceased person’s actions.

  3. Pidge, I don’t think we can make that case to everyone. And those who danced in joy when the Towers fell were rejoicing over the loss of thousands of lives whom they couldn’t name. Huge difference compared to the death of a very specific person whose actions were universally (or at least widely) regarded as deeply harmful.

  4. Yeah, Pidge, that’s a ridiculous comparison. Osama bin Laden is a very specific individual who killed thousands of innocents. There is no wiggle room there. He was a terrorist and a transnational pirate. In short, fuck that guy.

    And as much as I despised Falwell, there is no comparison between the two of them, either. Bin Laden, in my mind at least, had his humanity revoked.

  5. I think in either case, people are reacting to the symbolic harm, more than the specific effect. OBL was kind of a t that needed to be crossed.

  6. I’d argue that they weren’t rejoicing over the loss of thousands of lives, they were rejoicing over the idea that they had finally hit a country which they perceived had hit them.

    Specifically in this case, I don’t find the idea of a country extra-judicially murdering someone in another country a thing worth celebrating, even if he was a “baddie”.

    My main point is that if you say we can’t be arbiters of when it’s okay to be happy at deaths of people, then you have to allow that in cases where that joy is irrational, heartless, and – to us – inexplicable. The test of a principle like the one you present in the blog post above is whether you can apply it to circumstances you feel uncomfortable with. If Iraqis danced for joy if Bush was assassinated, would you feel the same? What I’m (not so subtlely) getting at is that many of us in the West are – as everyone does – applying double-standards in this case.

  7. I have read many articles/blogs/comments/opinions today regarding the death of Osama, and yours is the first one that I actually completely and utterly agree with. Everyone will have different reactions to this as we all have different ideals and life experiences. To say that any one person’s reaction to it is not “right” is ignoring the human condition. Everyone has a right to their own opinion and each of those opinions should be respected. Thank you for your post.

  8. Pidge, debating tip: markers like “It is my position that” and “I’d argue that” are little flags that say “I’m being rhetorically careful because my argument isn’t all that hot.”

    Of course the people rejoicing over 9/11 were celebrating the loss of thousands of lives – just as there are Americans who celebrate when ‘those guys’ are killed, even if ‘those guys’ are civilians who just happened to be in the same country as an enemy.

  9. I’d argue that they weren’t rejoicing over the loss of thousands of lives, they were rejoicing over the idea that they had finally hit a country which they perceived had hit them.

    Splitting hairs, and you know it. I would never condone a Western celebration in response to Mecca being bombed, no matter what it might “symbolize”. It would be wrong, and the bulk of the victims would be Muslim innocents.

    If Iraqis danced for joy if Bush was assassinated, would you feel the same?

    I’d understand it. I wouldn’t agree- I don’t think the two are comparable- but I’d understand. Hell, to be perfectly honest, there’d probably be Americans who would join them (unfortunately). But the WTC bombings? Beyond any rationalization.

  10. I’m glad Bin Laden’s dead as well but I would have preferred a public response that was more somber. Those Roman virtues that were absent ten years ago were absent, at least in some people, last night. And I say this as someone who is not entirely impressed with the modern life ethic.

  11. I’m glad Osama bin Laden is dead. Am I rejoicing? NO! Am I celebrating? NO. He perpetrated evil against innocent people. I’m not going to shed a tear for someone who committed monstrous crimes against humanity. The human race is best rid of him.

    “Specifically in this case, I don’t find the idea of a country extra-judicially murdering someone in another country a thing worth celebrating, even if he was a “baddie”.”

    “Baddie”? WTF! He was a terrorist responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent people.

    I agree with Robar R’s concise assessment, “In short, fuck that guy.”

  12. Well put, Hugo, although I would add that whatever a person’s response is, they should think it through, especially before expressing jubilation in front of people they don’t know all that well.
    I noticed how folks rejoiced when Ted Bundy was executed. I must say I shed no tears. I have never been able to make up my mind about the death penalty, but I find it a bit creepy when the public makes something like this into a tailgate party. Is there any danger of returning to the days when hangings and so on were the main public entertainment? Is it possible to feel relieved, yet not wanting to let one’s vengefulness run wild?
    Catullus, want to explain those Roman virtues that would be so useful now? Do they include some concept of moderation, of a mean?
    How about self-examination?

  13. One of my Facebook friends posted this on his status today — pretty sure MLK stated it better than I can:

    “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” -Martin Luther King, Jr.

  14. ‘m an American who works abroad. Today I woke up earlier than usual and while soberly checking the international news, I saw immediately (and everywhere) that Osama bin Laden had been killed. Good news, I suppose. The almost mythical leader of Al-Qaeda, who nearly everyone had forgotten about, was dead and dumped in the sea. He had been irrelevant for long, I thought, but perhaps his death would lead to some much-needed reflection about the catastrophe that was the last decade. Right.
    I will not remember today for Osama’s death. I will remember it for the way I felt watching the videos of my countrymen celebrating in the streets of New York and Washington. I don’t recognize them, these people waving flags, singing, and pouring their jubilation into the night because we killed someone. And what about all the others that have been killed? During 10 years we spent unbelievable amounts of blood and treasure, enacted unthinkable civil liberties legislation, and turned ourselves into brutes for this.
    And there we were out on the streets. Brutes. We have become brutes.
    Yes, the world is a better place without Osama bin Laden. But I fear what this has brought out in us. The structural factors that create Osama bin Ladens still exist, and unless we work to change those, we will continue to undermine ourselves by giving our attention to tomorrow’s straw man.

  15. Scott,

    I think you are seeing what you wanted to see, not what actually happened.

    You immediately jumped to the idea that the celebration has to do with the killing of Bin Laden. But the bigger victory was not killing him, but rather FINDING HIM in the first place.

    He was a criminal, responsible for the mass murder, who publicly eluded justice for a decade. He hid in a part of the world where elements of the population were likely to give him shelter and comfort. The longer he remained out of reach, the sronger the argument he made that America was incapable of adequately defending itself – that you could murder Americans and remain, for all intents and purposes, a free man.

    The celebrations were not over muder, they were about the successful conclusion of a decade-long manhunt which demonstrated that, on a long enough timeline, anyone can be brought to justice.

    You can see it as celebrating a killing if you want, but then the “brute” exists only in your perceptions, not in the actions and intentions for those who wanted to celebrate.

  16. Good job, Scott. Even those of us who don’t “do” love can do reason, can recall a few good stories where revenge went sour. A friend of mine just expressed concern that some crazies might try some retaliation somewhere. Meanwhile the freedom of innocent people here at home, not to mention a lot of money, has gone down the crapper. Money that could have housed the homeless and saved libraries. If we must get into a war, I have said a few times, can’t we at least get into one we can win?
    Seriously, though, I don’t feel more American becauze someone managed to nail one of the baddies. They did it without my help. And I fear that celebrations might be awfully premature.

  17. Offhand, Angiportus, I’d say gravitas, constantia and even humilitas. We did not display the sort of sober decorum a great and mighty nation ought to display in the face of Al-Qaeda’s provocations. This is even before a calm calculation of our complicity in creating the terrorists that heinously killed innocent people. Without that candor, I don’t fancy our chances in addressing terrorism or any of the other very real gaps in our lives.

  18. Catullus, assuming you’ve named yourself after Gaius Valerius Catullus, famous for his scatalogical and obscene poems that undermined rather than supported traditional Roman virtues, I think your stance is at odds with your pseudonym. If you were Cicero, or even Cato, maybe.

  19. That’s a fair cop, Hugo, although I’d like to think that had our dear Gaius seen the sacking of Rome by the Gauls in the Fourth Century BC, he might have put aside the scatology for the old civitas. Lots of lads can put the frivolity aside when the occasion calls for it. I take it you admire Cicero. I do as well as Catullus, though I’m inclined to see Cato the Younger as more of a hypocritical fraud than his admirers do.

  20. You know what Mike, I don’t agree at all. Bin Laden was one of the worst people in the world. I’m not going to add an “IMO” to that because anyone who thinks differently is nobody I want to associate with. He masterminded the plot that directly affected countless Americans and made the world less safe. He’s murdered Americans, Arabs, and others with impunity. He’s *the* major cause of the rampant Islamophobia that Muslims now have to deal with. He deserved to die, and I for one will not be condemning any sort of responses to his death. If it makes you feel any better, think of it more as a celebration of a better tomorrow… because the world is certainly a better place without that human disease in it.

  21. I agree with Scott, and if the flow of images I was subjected to online of the Statue of Liberty holding up Bin Laden’s bloody, dripping head and so on and on was any indication, we’re not projecting any more than Mike is. I was really surprised to get all this coming from my friends.

    Good riddance, but reveling in bloodshed is bizarre and unbecoming as far as I’m concerned, and reveling in having destroyed some kind of ultimate “bad guy” so that we’ll always be safe is horrifically naive when it comes from anyone who’s not very young (and there’s been a lot of that too).

    I haven’t “policed” anyone (goodness) but I have expressed my distressed. If that’s wrong, I don’t much care for that world.

  22. Wait, Roman virtues? Like executing people in an arena, with people cheering?

    I’m sure that’s not what you meant, but that was the first thing that came to mind (although I did just watch Spartacus).

  23. You guys can probably figure this out, but I was addressing Scott in my post, not Mike.

  24. LQ,

    That’s just it, you had to go online to LOOK for bloodied images.

    Scott saw the same peaceful celebration as the rest of us, a crowd gathered with flags singing (usually the national anthem) and hugging. No looting, not rioting, nothing even remotely violent. And the only images held up by the crowd were flags and signs with words like “We did it!”

    The crowds did not have effigies, they did not have bloodied images, the newsfeeds included no pictures of the body, and the crowds that gathered on the night Obama made the announcement produced no images of violence of their own.

    Scott saw this – the very definiton of peaceful celebration combined with a total absence of violent and bloody images – and somehow came to the conclusion “Brutes”. That is projection, pure and simple, seeing what you want to see rather than what is.

  25. Hey Hugo:

    Thought-provoking piece. I can’t argue with the premise that it’s an untenable position to tell people how they should feel.
    And, I think people need to hear dissenting opinions in order to truly know their own minds.
    I suspect many of your young students have been brainwashed by the “axis of evil” propaganda in their formative years. Yes – it was probably a spontaneous sense of relief to those celebrating in the streets. I can’t agree that violence is a solution. I question a society where we have no leaders who can remind us that there are other ways to be in the world besides being violent.
    Emotions come from deep inside of us. We don’t normally choose our emotions. We can choose our behavior. We can choose to honestly look at our emotions to see what beliefs we hold that cause us to act and react in certain ways.
    Then, we can be the creators of our lives.
    Anyhoo – thanks for the soapbox. May we all see clearly and breathe deeply.

  26. Roman virtues? My sentiments exactly twg.

    Whatever those Roman virtues are they were certainly not evident on April 29, 1945, when the bodies of Mussolini and other executed Fascists were dumped on the ground in the old Piazza Loreto. And after being shot, kicked, and spat upon, the bodies were hung upside down on meat hooks from the roof of a gas station and then stoned by civilians from below. The man was hated and his corpse became subject too much ridicule and abuse.

    I don’t feel comfortable nor will I criticize other people’s reactions to the news. I haven’t been watching the news to see any of it. His death has triggered very painful emotional memories of September 11th—the Twin Towers and the aftermath and that is enough. What he did to Americans is enough! His crimes against innocent people—humanity is enough!

    Osama was an evil man and he was the cause of much suffering and while I will not celebrate or rejoice in his death–in my heart I am glad that he is dead. I will not shed a tear for a terrorist. The world is a better place without him in it.

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