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Our Guy, Not the Other Guy

by Editor on May 1st, 2011

It’s human nature, I guess: we rationalize why we demonize opponents even as we rationalize why we make excuses for those we like. If you’re a Democrat, you may have been perfectly ready to vilify Clarence Thomas or former Senator Bob Packwood over the allegations of their sexual harassment–while excusing Bill Clinton and demonizing those who tried to impeach him. If you’re a Republican, same thing: Bill Clinton was happily called a “draft dodger” by so many on the right, while George W. Bush was not (despite being, in effect, a draft dodger who actively worked to avoid service in Vietnam).

This is on my mind right now as I sit and listen to the news and read the various social network feeds about the apparent death–can we call it an assassination?–of Osama Bin Laden. Already, I have seen many comments about how this is President Obama’s success, in contrast to Bush’s failure to do the same during the 6+ years that remained of his term after the 9/11 attacks. And I can’t help but wonder: how many of those folks used to bemoan the drone strikes and targeted assassinations policy of the Bush administration? Can we really claim this as a success for Obama, in the midst of a war in Afghanistan that otherwise continues to be a failure?

The news of Bin Laden’s death leaves me cold. I lived in New York on 9/11 and have been here since; I have seen, in person, the hole where the World Trade Center towers once stood, just as I had been in the towers themselves before they were felled. But I cannot claim to be pleased, despite all the death and devastation for which Bin Laden was responsible. I would rather have had him captured and tried in court, in open, civilian court, with a full airing for his crimes.

Bin Laden is not unique as an enemy; there are surely others. Listening to CNN crow about the “electric response” to this news misses the point. The media’s celebratory (as opposed to straightforward) approach to reporting this story is akin to their ability to keep the “birther” movement alive: they find too much satisfaction in the financial returns from these stories to report the news as it is–or to be honest about their lack of objectivity. And we should be careful in adding this to Obama’s balance sheet as a net positive. Bin Laden wasn’t Satan, Bush wasn’t either–and Obama is far from perfect. Murdering a terrorist several thousand miles away does little to change that dynamic.


A friend posted this quote from Andrew Sullivan’s “Daily Dish” column last night: “The pre-eminent symbol of our the multicultural, multiracial society of the future defeated the pre-eminent symbol of the darkest, bleakest throwback to medieval religious fanaticism. Im not ashamed to use the following language: Good defeated evil. And hope rekindles again.

I find this uncompelling; it is jingoism masquerading as intellectualism. Do symbols matter? Of course. But their value is relative–and symbols are extremely susceptible to abuse. Will Bin Laden’s death end terrorism? No. He was the symbolic leader of a diverse and problematic movement, driven by an ideology that by definition cannot be defeated through the slaying of a figurehead. Will Bin Laden’s death end the “war on terror”? No, of course not; that war is owned and managed by the same military-industrial complex about which President Eisenhower warned us, and it is by definition unwinnable on these terms. Will we now move from the the distraction of foreign wars to a more reasonable response to our domestic political issues? Unlikely; and the symbolism of this situation is equally unlikely to provide domestic political benefits to Obama as he engages with his opponents on these issues.

I am not sorry that Osama Bin Laden is dead, but I cannot join in the rejoicing. The death of a symbol is too easily abused for symbolic purposes.

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