The banality of triumph
NEW YORK — It seems nearly heretical to say so, but the termination of Osama bin Laden feels oddly anti-climactic.
Now what? And how to explain the sense that nothing has changed? The boogeyman may be dead, but the boogey is still at large in the world.
How, also, to explain my own discomfort as others have expressed jubilation? ’Twas a mystery.
Watching television coverage Sunday night when President Obama convened the nation to announce bin Laden’s demise, I kept waiting for the telling detail, the little something that would put it all in perspective and bring “closure,” even if I’d rather stub my toe than use that word.
It never quite came. Ten years of waiting and wondering where in the world was Osama bin Laden, the question nagged: Was he even alive? Then, voila. He was hiding in plain sight in a compound in Pakistan. We had been observing him for months. And now he was dead, said the president.
Whereupon the strangest thing happened. People began congregating outside the White House and cheering, celebrating the death of bin Laden. Young people, mostly, chanted “USA” and waved the flag. I wanted very much to share their joy and to feel, ah yes, solidarity in this magnificent moment, but the sentiment escaped me. Curiosity was the most I could summon. How curious that people would cheer another’s death.
Not since Dorothy landed her house on the Wicked Witch of the East have so many munchkins been so happy. My 20-something son explained ever so patiently that OBL was his generation’s Hitler and that of course he was happy. Why wasn’t I?
I don’t know. To me, the execution of bin Laden was more punctuation than poetry — a period at the end of a Faulknerian sentence. That is, too long and rather late-ish. To the 9/11 generation, if we may call it that, OBL wasn’t only the mastermind of a dastardly act; he was evil incarnate and the world wouldn’t be safe until he was eliminated.
Would that justice were so neat and evil so conveniently disposed of.
Perhaps it is a function of age, but I find no solace in revenge. What I do experience at such times is overwhelming sadness about the human condition, our bloodlust and attraction to spectacle. I have felt similarly twice before in recent memory — on the day when Saddam Hussein was hanged and, under drastically different circumstances, during the 1998 execution of Karla Faye Tucker in Texas.
In both instances, we millions tuned in to follow or observe the killings. No two people have more deserved the full force of earthly justice. Saddam’s crimes against humanity are well known. Tucker murdered two people with an ax, for which she later apologized. Her remorse and conversion as a born-again Christian captured public attention, but were inadequate to convince then-Gov. George W. Bush to commute her sentence. Ironically, both deaths were on Bush’s watch.
In watching these two dispensations, we became voluntary, if passive, participants. Co-executioner is not a role with which I hope to become comfortable. And though I understand society’s need for justice and the individual’s yearning for revenge, it seems we should be on guard. For the sake of civilization, the latter is to be conquered and the former tempered.
Inarguably, Osama bin Laden needed to leave this earth — and perhaps it is just that he did so by the wit, sleuth and sure aim of our bravest men. Even so, discomfort is a necessary companion to any violence we commit, even in the service of good. There is nothing to celebrate in any man’s death and I wish this had been the sentiment telegraphed to the rest of the world rather than the loutish hoorahs of late-night revelers.
Bin Laden was an icon and a figurehead. But he was not the sole proprietor of evil. For all of human time, it seems, there will be another one willing to fill his shoes and eager to find expression in others’ suffering. Evil, after all, is a vagabond, ever on the prowl for a crack in the door.
Not to be one of those Debbie Downers who puts things in unwelcome perspective, but shouldn’t we be slightly less delighted to kill? Triumphalism might play better on the day when we no longer have to kill each other.