I don’t rejoice at Osama bin Laden’s death, but I’m relieved he is dead … However, I cringe when I see people waving American flags as they cheer and shout USA! USA! War is a last resort, not an Olympic sport. —Herb Silverman in The Washington Post
After the trauma of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, perhaps a shout and a cheer was the only way some of us could find closure after 10 years of waiting and wondering. Still, like my friend Herb Silverman, I find something just a little troubling in the way my fellow Americans — so many of them, anyway — responded to the news that a special forces squad had taken out one of the most reprehensible men in the world.
There are some moments that are best observed in silence, even when the prevailing emotions are relief and vindication.
Let’s remember the decency and humanity in the words of U.S. Navy Capt. John Philip of the U.S.S. Texas. After pouring fire into the Spanish ship Vizcaya off the coast of Cuba during the Spanish-American War, he withdrew to watch the enemy ship burn and sink. “Don’t cheer, boys,” he told his crew. “The poor devils are dying.”
I’ve heard too much cheering at death in my life. It used to be a sport — especially in Southern states and especially in South Carolina — for rowdy crowds to gather outside the death house on the night of an execution and spend the evening cheering, drinking, and singing, until they received notice that the sentence had been carried out. Growing up in the Palmetto State, I heard the triumphal cheers ringing through the halls of my schools in 1963 and 1968, when word came that John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed.
It may not be noble to cheer when a dangerous or despised person dies, but it is certainly human. We feel vindication and a release from fear. Yet history shows that cooler heads and more humane voices prevail in the shaping of our culture. Our calendar is filled with holidays, remembrances, and observances, both secular and religious. They mark military and political triumphs (and an occasional defeat); they mark the birthdays of our heroes and leaders; a few of them even mark the dates when some of our heroes and leaders were killed by others. But nowhere on our calendar — nowhere in our culture that I am aware of — do we celebrate putting an individual to death. I am confident that in another decade, few will remember the date that Osama bin Laden died and none will celebrate it. It seems beneath our dignity, as, indeed, it is.
The other reason I could not bring myself to cheer the death of Bin Laden was that, ultimately, it accomplishes nothing. The War on Terror will go on. Al-Qaeda, the organization that Bin Laden founded and led, has been seriously degraded over the past decade. Its leaders have been taken out, one and two at a time, by cruise missiles and drone attacks. Its rank-and-file have drifted away. But they seem to reconstitute themselves in different forms, under different names. Bin Laden is gone, but the War on Terror goes on — at least for now.
The killing of Bin Laden reminds me of the arrest of Saddam Hussein eight months after American forces invaded Iraq. The sight of the former Iraqi tyrant in custody inspired a round of flag-waving and star-spangled rhetoric, not unlike what we witnessed last week. Yet seven years after Hussein’s capture and four years after his execution, American troops are still trying to secure the country we took from him.
One unexpected by-product of the Osama bin Laden hit was the spirit of unity that quickly infused our politics — and just as quickly vanished. In the couple of days it was present, you could actually hear President Obama be congratulated by former rival Sen. John McCain and even Rush Limbaugh, no less. But it was not universal.
On Monday morning — the day after the big event — I walked into a local barbershop that I had never visited before. I sat down in the barber chair and found myself in front of a television with the continuous news cycle about the death of Bin Laden playing out in front of me.
“Ain’t it wonderful that they finally killed him?” the female barber said, clipping the bib behind my neck. I mumbled something. Then, noticing that I was a middle-aged white guy, she made the inevitable assumptions and added, “I just hope it don’t encourage people to vote for that person in the White House!”
Ah, yes. Even the death of Osama bin Laden could not warm the heart of a South Carolina Republican.