The killing of bin Laden. In this country we will glorify the raid — the daring nature of it, the incredible planning and gadgetry involved, the bravery of the attacking team. The raid will provide the fodder for movies, award-winning documentaries, and video games for years to come.
The 9/11 attack was brutally destructive, terrifying, as it was intended to be. Americans responded with great bravery and personal acts of heroism, but in our rage and fury — both understandable — we demonized the action to such a degree that we lost the ability to react efficiently and effectively. We wanted revenge; we got it. We wanted to kick some butt; we did that.
But we have not acted efficiently or effectively — count up the dead (thousands of Americans, tens of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans), count the trillion-plus dollars spent and the debt we have incurred, and ask whether this price is worth the results. (The democratic movements in the Arab countries — the Arab Spring — seem to be producing more results more quickly than most of us could have imagined.)
George Orwell warned us (“Politics and the English Language”) that words can fall “upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details.” If we are going to talk about war, we need to name the actions so we can think clearly about what has been done and what we need still to do. That is what has been lost when the President says “Justice has been done.”
This is vengeance. This is retaliation.
Justice has process; justice involves the rule of law. Justice allows accused and accusers to speak. Justice is the orderly working out of the needs of society that respects the human rights of those who have not respected the rights of anyone. Consider the Nuremberg trials.
I have no doubt that bin Laden was guilty of many things, perhaps of all the things he claimed to be guilty of. But we dealt with him in the way of the romanticized Old West: We put up a poster — Wanted Dead or Alive — we took him out, and then we went down to the saloon to celebrate.
Orwell challenges us to name the actual deeds so we can talk about the actual consequences. But we hide the realities under the “soft snow” of catch phrases and comforting sound-bites.
Timothy McVeigh, when asked about the 19 children killed in the Murrah Building bombing, explained that they were “collateral damage.”
Because we are horrified by the Oklahoma City bombing, we easily see what McVeigh hides in the euphemism, “collateral damage.” But when we talk of a deed we glorify, we often fail to notice the euphemisms we use.
In the killing of bin Laden, we must see through the glorification — the intriguing details, the bravery, and the gadgetry — to the deed itself, neither glorifying it or demonizing it.
The necessity of doing this becomes clear when we think about our children and what they learn from our glorification of actions that we would not condone at other times and in other places.
How do we help kids understand how to respond to bullies? Because running around cheering at this assassination is like watching a bully beat up someone you don’t like. Who decides who gets to beat someone up? Who decides who gets beat up? The king of the mountain?
How do we help kids learn to value life when someone who is hated is just a cockroach to be stomped? Who decides who the cockroaches are? The people with the biggest shoes?
Our intentions may be noble, but noble intentions alone will not save us from ignoble actions and unintended consequences. Changing the names of things may make us feel better, but it does not help us think better.
So please, dance if you must — people should have the rights to their feelings, whether joy or relief, or anger — but let’s not call vengeance justice. Let’s recognize that we are condoning the guy on the big horse riding into town and taking out a bad guy. We cheer when that is our guy on the big horse and he has taken out our bad guy. But we fail to recognize that taking out our bad guy — it may have been quick and exciting — has done nothing to help the world understand how to deal with these bad guys.
One of the fundamental ways we lose sight of the truth is by changing the names of things. People become the enemy or our heroes. We bomb fortified positions, forgetting that fortified positions are soldiers and civilians. Vengeance becomes justice. Little children become collateral damage.