It’s probably foolish to write anything about the death of Osama Bin Laden while his body is still warm, and the vuvuzelas are still sounding at Ground Zero just a few miles from my apartment. But I have to say I’m more than a little alarmed by the flood of exultation washing over me from Twitter, Facebook, and every website I’ve looked at in the past few hours.
I’m glad we got him. Just looking at his face on the front page of tomorrow’s New York Times brought back a bit of the fear, grief, and lost innocence I felt during that period when we all first became acquainted with his leering visage. He plotted to kill thousands of innocent people and succeeded, and for that alone he deserved to meet a violent end. I also realize it’s a much-needed boost of morale to the American people, who are through little fault of their own saddled with two wars that have mostly succeeded in multiplying their Islamist enemies and ending innocent lives. And least importantly, since President Obama seems to have been secretly directing the pursuit of Bin Laden virtually since he took office, this victory instantly silences any attempt by his opponents to portray him as weak in the face of our global antagonists.
But it’s a very measured relief beyond the momentary catharsis. The sudden, unexpected elimination of the perpetrator of the 9/11 crimes looks very different in the shadow of the past decade than it would have in 2002. The sudden surge of patriotism Americans are expressing so loudly and in some cases crassly tonight suggests they feel as if that decade has been somehow wiped away, as if the troubles are gone now that we’ve accomplished what we set out to accomplish in the very beginning.
But I’m going to be the killjoy who insists we look at what has happened since September 2001, and wonder if we can really celebrate on a very deep moral level at all. Osama bin Laden’s attack on America killed roughly 3,000 people. Since then, the U.S. government has launched two wars in nations that were not previously our enemies, and one of which had no connection whatsoever to the 9/11 attacks. At the most conservative, over 100,000 people have been killed in Iraq. Over 8,000 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan. Let that sink in for a moment: more innocent civilians have been killed in Iraq every year since 2003 than the number of Americans who died on 9/11. Over twice the number of 9/11 victims have been killed in Afghanistan. In the meantime, hundreds of innocent men and boys have been literally snatched from their families’ arms, tortured, renditioned, and held for years without evidence or charge—all ostensibly for the purpose of preserving and advancing democracy.
Americans understandably want to forget this—some of them refuse to acknowledge it at all. Bin Laden’s death and the subsequent universal chest-beating will probably help them further down that path. But I feel that it’s impossible to go back to the beginning of the dark decade previous without looking with deep dismay at its end. Had Bin Laden been assassinated in this fashion in December 2001 or May 2003, there would have been a clean justice to it: you kill innocent people, you die. But after the U.S. has behaved so tragically and violently, has shown such contempt for the rule of its own law and the sanctity of human beings, finally getting Bin Laden feels morally vacant, like an irrelevant footnote. It may make us feel better, may help Obama in the polls for a few weeks, and may deprive a few cynical Republicans of their rhetorical claptrap. And he clearly deserved to die. But what’s the satisfaction of killing a monster when our innocent body count has so massively eclipsed his?
People tend to respond horribly to discussions of moral equivalence, and I highly doubt much sober reflection of that nature will be happening in our country in the next few days. But as throngs overflow Lower Manhattan and Times Square, celebrating the killing of an enemy who orchestrated the deaths of their family members, I can’t shut out memories of those crowds in Middle Eastern cities chanting “Death to America!” that we watched with such fear and loathing. We both hit our targets, we both celebrate in the streets. We kill each others’ innocent—and we kill a whole lot more of their innocent.
So hooray! We got the guy who did it. It’s all fixed now.
David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol. He covers religion for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and is a graduate student in the Draper Program for Humanities and Social Thought at New York University. He can be reached at hdavidsessions at gmail dot com.
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