Justice has been done, and a terrorist’s evil reign is over. But there’s still something we can learn from Osama bin Laden about our American values.
We are hearing a lot of things this week about what Osama bin Laden was. But we probably haven’t heard this: He was the man that laid bare the soul of America, revealing some aspects we’d rather not see.
This was true with his devastating attack on Sept. 11, 2001. And perhaps even more so in his own death nearly a decade later.
In both cases, at least from my overseas vantage point, we were exposed as a people who were perhaps just as vengeful, and (worse, in our minds) just as insecure as the people elsewhere in the world whom we call uncivilized and “savage” when they behave in similar ways.
The chants and jubilation, flag waving, crude sign flashing, and giddy joy that spontaneously erupted across America as news of bin Laden’s death was released Sunday night and into Monday at first made me uncomfortable. I felt a bit ashamed that my countrymen were cheering death.
I wanted them to have a certain type of dignity and class, that they would display what we believe is a special American respect for life. I wanted them to show that we were not like the people who danced and cheered in Somalia when a downed pilot’s body was dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993 … or like the hate-driven extremists and militants around the world who rejoice in the death of their enemies.
What People Do
I was uncomfortable until I realized that they were being perfectly normal human beings. They were responding like people who have been hurt by tragedy and injustice do when they get a measure of revenge or justice against their persecutors.
They were responding like people who have been belittled and humilated do when something gives them back a bit of their sense of dignity and honor.
They were responding like people do everywhere in the world in similar circumstances.
Problem is, we aren’t supposed to be like people everywhere.
I was only uncomfortable because I had been programmed to believe, like all Americans, that we were different. Exceptional, some say.
We are a nation founded on principles like none other, so the logic goes. We follow the rule of law. “We are a Christian nation,” so we value life and justice. (Another disclaimer.)
We believe we are more generous, more brave, more forgiving, more industrious, more peaceful, more democratic, more principle driven, more law abiding…
And because of all these exceptional things, the thinking continues, we became the most powerful nation on earth. God blessed America.
Looking in the Mirror
Seeing ourselves as distinctly different from the rest of the world allows us to distance ourselves from their pain and anger. It allows us to categorize their suffering and needs as less legitimate than our own.
But this logic falls apart when we are obliged to see how much we are like other nations and people — when we are constrained to see how unexceptional we are. And if there is one thing that bin Laden may have done for us, it’s to hold a mirror up to our faces. He has shown us — if we care to pay attention — what we really look like.
I saw it myself. Fists and teeth clenched, “We got that SOB,” one baseball fan screamed as he left the ballpark Sunday night. Another, at Times Square in New York, waved his American flag with a wide-eyed frenzy that one might have mistaken for an anti-American protest in Palestine or Iran.
Others just cheered and chanted “USA, USA, USA … ” as if we had just won a hockey gold medal at the Olympics.
But this was no game. This was life and death.
Not only was it about 3,000 people who perished in the attack in 2001, but it was about the hundreds of thousands of people who have died since that time. Soldiers, militants, civilians. Americans, Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis …
Bin Laden and others like him killed, as people do around the world, because they come from a lineage that blames America and the West for the injustices and humiliations that they believe have been committed against their people. They sought vengeance and justice through blood and death.
While few of us would argue about the justice and utility of Bin Laden’s death, the cycle continued Sunday night. This was not a reason for joy. There was no victory. It was another turn in the sad cycle of death that certainly did not end when his body was dumped in the ocean.
But for millions of Americans, just as September 11 had been a decade earlier for some who had resented Western world domination, this was a time to celebrate. This was a time for renewed pride.
Look in the mirror.
From a Distance
Sometimes things are clearer when we take a step back.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, I have been keenly aware that there is something different about following world events from outside the United States. I came to understand long ago that there was something I would never quite share with my countrymen who had lived through the shocking destruction of the Twin Towers in New York from that side of the Atlantic.
After September 11, when we felt threatened and weakened and humiliated, we began to look like other nations we once looked down on. We were vulnerable and afraid.
And so we became less democratic, less law-abiding, less concerned with human life, less Christian, if you will …
As our soul was laid bare, our true core beliefs became more and more visible: power and force — not laws, justice, relationships and cooperation — are what makes one right and safe in this world.
Maintaining power and keeping our safety was all that mattered, no matter who we had to detain illegally, torture, bomb, invade … no matter how many innocent civilians might die … no matter how many soldiers would be sent off to war.
We had to win. We had to get this man who had exposed our weaknesses and who continued to threaten us and humiliate us with his grainy videotapes from supposed mountain hideouts.
Why It Matters Today
Again, we are not worse than any other people. But we do have more power and thus the ability to act out our core values. And if we don’t understand who we truly are, how can we begin to figure out how to navigate the confusing mix of our interests and values represented in today’s quickly changing international environment?
How will we communicate why we will bomb and seek to overthrow one dictator trying to crush democracy while ignoring similar actions elsewhere? Will we keep talking about how special we are?
Will we be surprised when we’re called hypocrites when we don’t seem to care what happens in Burkina Faso or Ivory Coast?
Will we be surprised when the insurgents we support today turn against us tomorrow?
Will we continue wondering why no one else sees us as altruistic supporters of democracy and freedom for reasons beyond our own self interests?
The sooner we see ourselves more realistically, perhaps even humbly acknowledging when we have taken part in injustice, the sooner we’ll be able to construct true relationships of trust in those parts of the world where there are so few.
If this is to happen, we need to take the blinders off. The first step is realizing that, as a nation of fallen people, we are not so different from the rest of the world.
And by helping us see ourselves more clearly, perhaps Osama bin Laden (of all people!) may actually help us become more like the nation we aspire to be.