There is something fundamentally crazy-making about the fact that Osama bin Laden, damned murderer of thousands, met his demise on the anniversary of the day George W. Bush, damned murderer of thousands, pulled his infamous “Mission Accomplished” stunt on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln. I suspect that, had Mr. Bush managed to back up his big talk and actually bag bin Laden before his second term expired, we would have seen him jump out of an attack helicopter at Ground Zero wearing a SEAL uniform – complete with night-vision scope and even larger codpiece – under a banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished II.”
You just know Bush would have done it, too. The core of his greatest strength was his utter and complete lack of shame. The fact that he said, “I don’t know where he is. Nor do I – you know, I just don’t spend that much time on him to be honest with you,” in 2002 would not have fazed him one bit. He would have smirked his way through it, and the mainstream media would have cooed over his masculinity and awesome presidential excellence.
So, at least, we were spared that madness. Thank God for small favors. Seems like that’s all we get these days.
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I wanted to celebrate the death of bin Laden, and in my own way, I did. I didn’t dance in the streets or wave a flag or shout “USA! USA! USA!” But I definitely smiled, and I don’t apologize for it. There an old joke about a man who would buy a newspaper every day from a paperboy, scan the front page, and then throw the paper away in disgust. After a while, the paperboy asked him why he kept throwing the paper away. “I’m looking for someone in the obituaries,” the man replied. “But, sir,” said the paperboy, “the obituaries aren’t on the front page.” The man looked at him and said, “When the son of a bitch I’m looking for dies, he’ll be on the front page.”
Or, in the immortal words of Mark Twain, “I never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure.” That’s about right, and that’s enough about that.
For you see, despite all the rampant celebration and cheering crowds, the fact that Osama bin Laden is dead does not alter the landscape much at all. To be sure, the families and friends of those who died by his hand can perhaps find a measure of closure, and those who bought wholesale into the fear-tactic idea that bin Laden was lurking behind every corner and under every bed can maybe put the Tums down and get a good night sleep for a change. For the rest of us, however, the Earth still spins on its axis just as it did before the deal went down.
After all the chest-beating and hoot-hollering dies down, it is my devout hope that we as Americans give ourselves over to a somber, sober reflection on the ten years that have passed since Osama bin Laden slammed into our collective consciousness. In the end, I hope we can arrive at a promise, made to ourselves and to each other, that we will never allow such horrific madness to take hold of our country ever again.
I do not mean by this to say that we must promise to stop terrorism. That would be nice – incredible, actually – but it isn’t going to happen any time soon. Ten decades of ruthless American foreign policy have spawned a host of implacable foes, and they are not going to close up shop because Osama bin Laden now sleeps with the fishes. His acolytes have promised retribution, and they very well may keep their word. In the end, terrorism is something we must all live with for now, until the day comes when we make the collective, democratic decision to change the way we operate in the world. Terrorism is not all our fault, but we bear a substantial portion of the burden that has been imposed upon us. Intelligence types call it “blowback,” and thanks to so many wretched decisions made in our past, it is going to keep blowing for at least the foreseeable future.
Call me a cynic or an America-hater (and how’s that for a G.W. Bush flashback), but it is what it is. After the euphoria of the moment passed, I found myself awash in deep feelings of woe and regret. Not over bin Laden himself or the manner of his end, but over the utterly ruinous decade that was allowed to transpire under the banner of “getting him,” and over the equally ruinous and painful days that are still to come.
After 9/11, much of the country went collectively crazy with fear and rage, and the members of George W. Bush’s administration capitalized on that to great and terrible effect. They knew exactly what they were doing, right down to the facile “terror alerts” they would vomit on us whenever they found themselves in a political corner. They lied about bin Laden connections and WMD in Iraq to promote an invasion that made their rich friends even richer while killing a lot of people, and drove the nation down into the ditch. They used that horrible day against us, deliberately and with intent. All you hear from the media since bin Laden was killed is how “united” we were after 9/11, but I don’t remember feeling that unity. I remember thinking we were reacting to that event in exactly the wrong way – with the PATRIOT Act, the Homeland Security Act, the gutting of essential rights, and the calamitous invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan – and being told I was not a real American for my trouble.
Remember where we were ten years ago, with an unprecedented budget surplus, relative peace, and no talk of the destruction of Social Security or Medicare anywhere. Ten years later and we are still mired in those two wars, with a third now thrown on top for good measure, and all that surplus tax money is now lining the pockets of a fortunate few who capitalized on our fears while the rest of us scratch and scrape just to survive. Legions of elderly people pass through my neighborhood to dig through trash barrels for recyclable cans and bottles they can turn in to get by. That is bin Laden’s legacy, as much as it is Mr. Bush’s.
It is hard to escape the fact that, in far too many ways, bin Laden won even in death. He hoped to provoke a drastic over-reach from that resident idiot in the White House, and he got what he was after. The damage done to us by Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney and the rest of that crowd of cretins will echo painfully down the corridor of our history for a long time to come. Osama bin Laden hurt us, and in response, we hurt ourselves ten times worse. We are still hurting ourselves; 24 hours before the news of his death hit the wires, all the “mainstream” media could talk about was birth certificates. This is not the characteristic of a flourishing society. This is the characteristic of a failing state that lacks the courage or the will to address what truly ails it.
So many have died, in Iraq and Afghanistan and right here in America – from bombs, bullets, inadequate health care, indifference and simple despair. So much has been wasted, so many opportunities squandered, so much pain dealt and received. After we finish patting ourselves on the back for what the president and his SEALs did on Sunday night, it would be human and proper of us to realize that this is not a time for celebration. Too much has happened, too much blood has been spilled, too many lives have been lost or ruined for us to indulge in self-congratulation. Ours is a sorely wounded country, and we must face the fact that many of those wounds have been self-inflicted. We are falling apart in large part because of these last ten years, and instead of throwing a parade, we should look inward and decide to choose a different way.
Someone on the television called the death of Osama bin Laden this generation’s VE Day. I would hope, instead, we make it our VO Day: Victory in Ourselves. Let us never allow an act of violence to compel us to eviscerate what is best in us and our country. Let us never allow any person – be they terrorist or president or talking head – to make us fear anything but fear itself, because that fear is the window through which they steal from us. The last decade was a smash-and-grab robbery writ large, a tremendous act of first-degree murder, and it delivered us today to this place of ashes and loss.
The future is not what we hoped it would be, and the pain of these years will linger for a long time to come. Stand your ground. Make it better. Don’t ever let it happen again.