“I watched as a nation drank deep from that very dark elixir of American nationalism”¦ the flip side of nationalism is always racism, it’s about self-exaltation and the denigration of the other. And it’s about forgetting that terrorism is a tactic. You can’t make war on terror.” ““ Chris Hedges
There is power in both words and actions, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Often those who have the most power, who have access to the largest platform, are represented as the majority, becoming the image of “what is.” This is, of course, easy, making invisible the countless experiences that make up the rest of “what is,” leaving behind an understanding of the whole, its complexities, and unsavory realities.
Late Sunday evening, word was received that a specialized U.S. task force had killed Osama bin Laden, an action that somehow evaded the Bush administration for all its hemming and hawing about the war on terrorism. Ten years after 9/11, two wars, and a trillion dollar deficit that is being made up with cuts of social programs, we finished what we had set out to do. Mission accomplished?
To be clear, bin Laden was a sociopath. He preyed on disenfranchised young men in poverty and recruited them through a promise of money, power, and martyrdom. He promoted a twisted and false idea of what Islam represented, much of which resides in the opinions of the mainstream American media. He viewed women as inferior and in so condoned rape, acid attacks, and violent murders. He personified violence, extremism, hatred – he was a horrible human being. Those relieved have reason to be, much like an exhale from the constant breath holding that has gone on for years even before the event that brought him into the American psyche.
And yet, the cause for celebration for his death is startling. History has yet to prove that two wrongs make a right or that celebrating the violent death of a man who violently killed others is something to be considered a high point, one that eradicates all pain and starts everything anew. What is the reaction that should be or is wanted? I don’t know. But watching young college students, law students to be more specific, celebrating by bringing beach balls, drinking beer and shouting, “USA, USA,” seemed to be a spectacle, something that while it made sense, was not right at all.
I cannot even begin to understand the tragedy of losing someone in a horrific, trauma-induced manner, whether it be from the 9/11 attacks, the two wars we are now involved in, or from the growing spread of hate crimes against Muslim and Desi communities post 9/11. I cannot know about living with PTSD from being a soldier abroad or being a ground zero worker with debilitating health issues that the government and health insurance companies fight actively against so they don’t have to grant coverage. I cannot know what it’s like to be hated because my skin happens to be a certain color or because I wear a hidjab. I cannot know about living in a war zone every day. I can not know what it is like to have my existence threatened by drones, by suicide bombers, by being a target simply because I want to educate myself, or by the fear of the Taliban and the fear of the American troops. I cannot understand living with occupation or living with the knowledge that my death is somehow viewed as just a part of the casualties of war. I simply cannot.
As someone who identifies as a citizen (particularly one that identifies as White, which carries its own set of other privileges in this situation) of one of the most heavily militarized and powerful countries in the world, there is a lot to be said for being able to joyfully celebrate in the streets that we have decimated a bully. The invisible benefits that come along with this also make up the same things that easily blind us to the lesser talked about things – the deaths that go unnoticed for the sake of “freedom and justice.” The same benefits that make us blind to the hostility directed at American Muslims. The same benefits that make dancing in the street over a dead terrorist a little too reminiscent of a mob, all good intentions aside. The very same joy that was expressed late Sunday evening and early Monday morning was similar to the excitement post 9-11, when people celebrated the attack on the U.S. Except those people were wrong and evil. If it were only that simple.
This event doesn’t bring back family and friends lost. It does not stop the occupation of countries that we didn’t need to be in the first place. It does not make un-invisible the thousands of deaths of Iraqi and Afghani citizens. It does not stop terrorism, it does not fix the budget deficit, it doesn’t bring home troops and it most certainly does not stop the racial and religious persecution of those who are viewed as one of “them.” It might bring closure to a few and for them, I only hope that the pain that they live with every day is somehow lessened. It might be a sigh of relief , but it doesn’t solve anything.
This celebration has made it so easy to celebrate in the street, crying out in joy over the violent murder of a man who violently murdered people. What does that say about our national psyche? About what we value as justice? So we have won. Well who is “we”? Is “we” the collective American identity? Is “we” the idea of patriotism? Is “we” the valued American bodies that only seemed to matter, the ones that take precedence over the civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq. Would the perceptions of celebration changed if instead of the masses of young, white kids been viewed differently if it were made up of Arab-Americans, of African-Americans? Would police have allowed the overflowing into streets, the climbing on stop signs and public drinking? It begs many questions about on the nature of success and victory and who it actually applies too.
I live in a country that has somehow injected itself into almost every other country in the world. A country that while I love and feel lucky to live in, often turns a blind eye not only towards the suffering of those who are too far removed, whether by their “otherness” or by proximity, but also turns its back on in own citizens who suffer in a different way. Yes, even the president is part of that “otherness”, fresh off Trump-birther gate and now regaling a new round of questioning and doubt- Wheres the body ? Didn’t he just want to get rid of all those soldiers ! But the Bush era really made this victory ! Even in what would be a pinnacle of strategic success for any other leader in the world, the resentment still spews from those who were often hungriest the most for revenge on bin Laden.
We are celebrating the moment- a violent moment – as part of our collective history. Yet somehow, the thousands of Afghani and Iraqi citizens who have suffered more from Al Qaeda and bin Laden’s presence, but also from our own military presence, are still dealing with the immediate fallout from all of this. They have yet to “fit” into this narrative of us winning, of our victory. It begets the question, what is it that we are really valuing? If we, as a country, so pride ourselves on being a diverse, multi-centric place, one that believes in justice, what does it say if we are comfortable to take out thousands in the search for just one? One guy who stands for nothing more than a symbol in a rotating door of ever changing extremist groups? What does it mean when we can dissociate ourselves with the fact that people, just like us, can be wiped out at the blink of an eye? When there is predominant justification in the deep suspicion, racial profiling and hate crimes directed at those who look like them? How do we claim this as a victory when it asks more questions than it gives answers ?
Why not celebrate when systematic racism and sexism is eradicated. Or when the unemployment rate swoops back down to zero or when the education system is revitalized to give all children an equal right to a good education. Or when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are just a distant memory, a blemish in American history and a dark time in Middle Eastern history.How about when troops made up of young kids old enough to die but not old enough to drink are returned back to their parents. Or when Muslim and Desi communities are not targets of hate crimes, racial slurs, or to be stripped of their rights through extreme legal measure. There are so many things to genuinely celebrate when and if they ever happen. But why are we celebrating this?