For Gizella Czene of Van Nuys, California, the celebratory tone surrounding Osama bin Laden's death was eerily reminiscent of the immediate days following 9/11, when, as she put it, “nationalistic belligerent fervor overtook our nation.”
Following President Obama's announcement of bin Laden's death on Sunday night, she began switching television channels to learn more. Images of revelers celebrating the 9/11 mastermind's death flashed across the television screen, and, almost immediately, she felt profoundly sad that such fervor has returned.
Czene, a pacifist since the age of 12, turned to a saying from Friedrich Nietzsche for consolation: “The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened.”
Czene's reaction was echoed by activists across the country who, after bin Laden's death, struggled to define the event's meaning for the peace movement – and to determine their course of action amid the jubilation around them.
On the phone from Chicago, Kathy Kelly, co-coordinator of the peace group Voices for Creative Nonviolence (VCNV), paused and breathed deeply before answering the question about her initial thoughts on bin Laden's death. After a few reflective moments, she said she wondered if his death, “will signal the end of warfare in Afghanistan.”
Her hope soon faded as President Obama made his announcement about bin Laden's death on Sunday night.
To Kelly, the disappointment came when Obama did not use his announcement as “a teachable moment.” Instead of invoking the pacifism and restraint urged during the Vietnam War by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Obama presented the death as a victory for American exceptionalism,” she said.
Yet, she believes that, “If the US ever realized that it is imitative of Osama bin Laden's actions, snuffing out many lives across the Middle East because of our endless attacks, then maybe [Obama's] response would have been different.”
Like Czene and Kelly, Witness Against Torture organizer Matt Daloisio also feels something: sadness.
“Ten years and over 6000 US soldiers killed,” he said in a statement he released through VCNV. “Trillions of dollars wasted. Hundreds of thousands of civilians killed. Tens of thousands imprisoned. Torture as part of foreign policy. And we are supposed to celebrate the murder of one person? I am not excited. I am not happy. I remain profoundly sad.”
Cynicism and Sadness No Surprise
The cynical, disappointed and isolated feeling among peace and justice activists following bin Laden's death should not be surprising, writes Randall Amster, a professor at Prescott College and president of the Peace and Justice Studies Association. The peace and justice community has, “struggled with the full implications of the post-9/11 era,” he writes in an email to Truthout. “Perpetual warfare, contravention of the rules of war, an expanding war economy, and the militarization of nearly all aspects of our lives – the forces at work behind these eventualities have shown themselves to be largely undeterred by protest, legality, oversight, or ethics. Thus, for many who have been confronting these issues directly for the past decade, the cynicism is palpable – and with good reason.”
So, he continues, the “pro-war sense of victory and nationalism coming through the official pronouncements, media spin, and public celebrations of bin Laden's death” irked many activists, in part because, “those in the peace and justice community are aware of how such attitudes can be folded back into the impetus for more war, and how they can easily be manipulated to vindicate the rampant militarism we've seen in recent years.”
Amster writes that when it comes to the death of bin Laden, many activists paint it on a larger plane. “The death of a single individual – itself an expression of vengeance and not justice – cannot surmount the totality of the historical moment in which we find ourselves.”
Death Brings Hope (and Demand) to End Wars
Despite the feelings of cynicism, disappointment and isolation, numerous activists view bin Laden's death as a turning point.
“The death of bin Laden provides a time for closure on 9/11 [but] complete closure will require an end to the war on terror. Obama has an opportunity to re-think US foreign policy now,” wrote Zeese in an email.
Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) Executive Director Jose Vasquez, whose group has also come out against the war in Afghanistan, agrees.
In a statement, Vasquez explains that, “real justice will not happen until the US has removed all occupying forces and returned the right of self-determination to the people of Afghanistan and Iraq. The Obama administration now has an opportunity to bring our troops home and scale back our military commitments overseas.”
Antiwar activist and Democratic Congressional candidate for California's 36th district Marcy Winograd has made ending the wars a central plank of her candidacy, and, in a statement released on May 2, she calls for both reflection – and action.
“We must remain grounded in the belief that history, however tragic, is not made by one angry man orchestrating mass murder. While we may have reviled Bin Laden and his hateful words and deeds, we must still examine why his tirades and plots ever gained resonance in the Arab world, and we must resolve to bridge the gap between the United States and much of the Middle East,” she pointed out.
Winograd also suggested, as a Congressional candidate, that, “Congress can begin that process by allocating money, not to continue the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations, but to bring our troops home safely…. Peace is possible, not through occupation and arms sales, but through negotiation and global cooperation.”
In a blog post on The Huffington Post, CODEPINK co-founder Medea Benjamin put it simply: “For us, the death of Osama Bin Laden is a time of profound reflection. With his death, we remember and mourn all the lives lost on September 11. We remember and mourn all the lives lost in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan. We remember and mourn the death of our soldiers. And we say, as we have been saying for the past nine years, 'Enough.'”