13 May 2011

On Celebrating Death


After some consideration, I left late last Sunday night to celebrate Osama bin Laden's killing at the White House.  For no reason other than to organize my own thoughts on the matter, I'm sending you this email.

As you know, one of my favorite movies in high school was A Few Good Men.  Most people remember the exchange that ends with Jack Nicholson as Colonel Jessup screaming, "You can't handle the truth," but his explication actually forms the moral argument of the movie:
Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls need to be guarded by men with guns.  Who's gonna do it? You? You, LT Weinberg?  I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom.  You weep for Santiago, and curse the Marines.  You have that luxury.  You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: that Santiago's death, while tragic, probably saved lives, and my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You dont want the truth because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall; you need me on that wall"
During my formative years, I grew to see the movie as dated.  After seeing what I perceived to be unassailable victories in Desert Storm, Kosovo, and other TOMAHWAK strikes the globe over, my feeling was that the world no longer had Col. Jessup's walls.  Or, if it did, they could be guarded by men with cruise missiles and aircraft carriers.  The world in which we lived then, I thought, had no need for "men with guns," and his existence as a commander of ground troops, while not necessarily grotesque, certainly didn't seem to actually save lives.

Shortly after my 19th birthday, we arrived for our freshman year of college.  The next Tuesday crystallized, searingly, the images of walls and men with guns.  Neither Osama bin Laden nor his attacks on 9/11 created the need for those walls, as some very smart people have suggested;  they were always there and we simply let our guard down.  Just because I grew up in a world where I never felt threatened, didn't mean there was an absence of threats.  Osama bin Laden pulled down that veil of innocence, and awoke me (and a portion of my generation) to the reality that America is not invincible, but he didn't change the fundamental reality of our nation or the world.

Though I am a committed and passionate opponent of the death penalty, last Sunday I celebrated, with glee, in front of the White House upon hearing the news of OBL's death.  I was not, as many have suggested, morbidly reveling in the loss of a fellow human being, however despicable he may have been, and even said a short prayer on my ten block walk asking God to understand my feelings of joy.  I was, rather, celebrating a brief return to my childhood, where (in my mind) America meant what she said, and backed up her words with an unambiguous show of force.

To be sure, there were those, mostly college students, who were using the occasion as an excuse for a party; chants of "CAN-CEL FIN-ALS" were perfect evidence of that.  But interspersed throughout the crowd were fellow soldiers and sailors, who, like me I'm sure, joined the military because of the experience of 9/11.  There were middle aged mothers and fathers, doubtless some who lost their children to the fight, somberly acknowledging that now, far beyond the neo-conservative abstract of spreading democracy, they had concrete reason to believe their child had not died in vein.  I even saw a beautiful young Muslim woman;  though I didn't ask, I assumed she was celebrating the beginning of the end to a movement that has so perverted her beautiful faith.  We all may have had different reasons for getting out of bed and celebrating the death of a human being, but in my experience, very little of the revelry was based in morbid patriotism.

I take the criticism of the gathering and the celebrations seriously.  Tony Kornheiser, Megan McArdle, and The Economist all gave smart words that made me pause and reflect upon what I had done.  This email is the result of that reflection.  Again though, even after reflection I feel nothing but manifest pride that the US Navy, under the direction of President Obama, invaded a sovereign nation and killed Osama bin Laden, and that I was there to celebrate it.  There are walls, and those walls do need to be guarded by men with guns; I'm even more proud to have done so.

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