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From ‘America! F#@k Yeah!’ to ‘Everyone Loses’

May 2, 2011
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Two notes before I jump in, since this is my first post here. First of all, thanks Diana for allowing me to post here. Second, apologies to those of you who come here expecting guns. I’ve never even held a gun. I know nothing about guns except what I’ve learned from reading Diana and C.J. Chivers, which come to think of it is probably more than a lot of people with my gun-free upbringing, but still.

I don’t have any policy prescriptions, nor am I the holder of the deepest, most nuanced insights on any particular aspect of bin Laden’s death. There are more knowledgeable people than I covering all of that territory. For reporting on the operation, see Marc Ambinder. For thoughts on U.S. – Pakistan relations, see Joshua Foust. Go to Glenn Greenwald for warnings on the self-inflicted wounds, to civil liberties, to the Constitution. To hear how this affects the future of terrorism and counter-terrorism, see Daveed Gartenstein-Ross or Leah Farrall. For insights into the corporate interests and less-than-idealistic motivations at play, see the work of Jeremy Scahill. For reminders of all the damage we have done in this pursuit, see Scahill again or the ever-controversial Nir Rosen. What I have to offer is just my own reactions, from the sort of middle place where I think many of us dwell.

I was up all night watching Twitter explode with rumors, news, reactions, speculations, jokes, celebrations, condemnations, and meme-creations. I found myself not quite knowing what to feel. I try to keep an open mind on issues, and major news stories always make me appreciate the diversity of the people I follow on Twitter. I have seen reactions that have run the gamut, and my own reactions have done the same. I can be slow to take a stance on issues. I try to see them from every angle, put myself in as many shoes as I can, inhabit them, before I really know where I stand. Hearing about the death of bin Laden, I felt the range of reactions, some visceral, some considered.

Like everyone who was old enough to know what was happening on 9/11, that day and the days immediately following it remain vivid for me, and there was an almost instinctive part of me that heard the news last night and said, “Good. Finally. All that devastation. All these years. We finally got the fucker.” As details of the operation were revealed, I also felt what I refer to as the ‘America! Fuck Yeah!’ response. Purely on the intelligence and special forces operations involved, this was badass: patient, precise, silent, surgical, and in the end, effective. You can’t help but admire the immense skill it took to execute this operation, no matter what you might think of JSOC or any of the tricky legal or political questions that arise. Having these reactions, I can’t bring myself to be sorry he is dead. I’ve seen many responses that have reflected these feelings: soldiers and vets who feel their sacrifices and efforts have been validated, people toasting to bin Laden’s demise, pure jubilation, dancing and chanting outside the White House and at the World Trade Center site. I understand how people can feel this way, I can see where they are coming from.

I’m not sorry he’s dead, but I’m not dancing either. Because the rest of the spectrum of reaction has something to say, too. From a practical perspective, many of the more measured commenters have been quick to point out (rightly) that bin Laden’s death does not mean the end of terrorism or of al Qaeda, and very likely does not even mean an appreciable change in our strategy or operations. Other pragmatists have pointed to the need to assess our relationship with Pakistan, or the way we are conducting our wars.

Then there are the ‘buzzkills’ inhabiting the opposite end of the spectrum from the revelers, those arguing that retribution is not the same as justice, that our pursuit of bin Laden has spread misery writ large across the world, that we let a criminal thug who deserved the treatment of a common gangster provoke us into a massive reaction all out of proportion to his worth. Much as my initial reaction was colored by an instinctive sense of satisfaction, I know better than to be ruled by that. It did not take me long to remember that while bin Laden dealt massive death and destruction, we as a country have dealt orders of magnitude more death and destruction in the name of pursuing him and his ilk. He doesn’t get a pass for his part in that, but we are responsible for our own actions and responses, and we have much to answer for.

Almost ten years ago, a terrible wound was struck against this country: thousands killed, our national psyche changed. Since then, tens of thousands – maybe hundreds of thousands – of people both guilty and innocent, combatants and civilians, Americans and allies and enemies,  have been killed in operations both overt and covert in dozens of countries around the world; people have been displaced, wars incited; civil liberties have been eroded, international law flouted; it’s dark stuff, and I have a hard time seeing how any side has benefited, how anyone’s world has been improved.

I understand why some people are celebrating. I understand why others are not. I spent last night feeling all mixed up about this, but I was left with the lingering feeling looking back at the last ten years, that we all lose.

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