What sort of individual would have offered thousands of innocent people the choice of burning to death in an inferno or jumping from buildings famous for their height? At first, bin Laden denied involvement in, or even prior knowledge of, the attacks of a decade ago. But videotapes of this comic book villain were soon discovered as he gloated in the aftermath, boasting that the attacks had exceeded his expectations. He only expected the topmost floors of the towers to collapse, he said on tape to a confidant. He and cronies dined and cheered as entire buildings fell, thrilled as those killed multiplied.
Just as Japanese Americans bore the brunt after Pearl Harbor, unjustly conflated with the militarists of the Empire of Japan, so Muslims became identified by many Americans as terrorists. There are differences, to be sure. The bigotry of today does not have the cover of official action. In those days, Americans of Japanese descent were rounded up wholesale and herded into concentration camps. Today, Americans who worship God at mosque have been subjected to harassment, discrimination, and occasional violence, but President Bush, followed by President Obama, maintained a distinction. We are not fighting against Islam, but rather against terrorism.
Rage is often misdirected. It is a sad and cloudy part of the human experience. A deed so monstrous deserves authorship from a larger evil than mere evidence can show. It has been that way through history. Those of us who felt the pain of assassination knew on a visceral level that some widespread conspiracy had to have been at play. How else to explain the loss of a President Kennedy, an almost President Kennedy, and a prophet of human rights in the person of Martin Luther King? The mafia, or the CIA, or the USSR, or the Klan had to have been behind it.
It has been the same in the years since 9/11. A madman in a cave on the other side of the world was too small an object for righteous rage. And so, Muslims became targets, and Arabs, and any who looked to the ignorant as if they might be in a suspect group. A patriotic gesture of defiance, the building of an Islamic center by Americans to fight the lie that terrorists presented, the lie that terrorism was a justified response to America’s attacks on an entire religion, was itself attacked by American bigots as offensive. And so the terrorist lie was given the thin veneer of plausibility. Yes, said some, America is indeed on the attack against Islam.
In fact, the great majority of those killed by this man, those who died on several continents, were Muslims. The main targets of his wrath were those who followed the wrong strain of Islam. Only Sunni Muslims were fit to live, and of those, only those stern enough to join the anger.
American rage, with its lack of focus, did find its way into official circles. The madman in a cave on the other side of the world, even a wealthy madman with a gang of thugs, could not have performed such a murderous scheme with such precision. Some state backing had to have been in play. And so an evil dictator with no connection to the attacks became the prime suspect. Find the evidence, demanded some at the very top of American government. And any wisp became proof. Iraq was attacked, and bin Laden escaped in Tora Bora, as frustrated CIA personnel screamed in vain for forces.
This week, we celebrate this death, this person who is as removed from us as are the Nazis of generations ago. In our celebration, the obvious question is rhetorical, its meaning lost. What sort of individual would have committed such crimes? One answer may be any individual who becomes so devoted to an idea that mere people are unimportant in comparison. When a cause erases all compassion, when the human heart becomes cold, a religious devotee can too easily morph into a sociopath.
We celebrate the removal of this person, joining in communal chants. Politicians fight for a place at the head table, in perpetual maneuver, with endless positioning. We and those like us, they say, had some connection with this death. Congratulations on being such a good follower of our lead, Mr. President.
I am glad bin Laden is dead. I should be glad for the children who would have been murdered and now may not be. I should celebrate for justice now finally served, for evil being set back, for the demoralization of others who would murder. I should celebrate for all the right reasons. And I do.
I also do what Christian leaders tell me not to do. I gloat. I do not mourn, except in a purely theoretical sense, a lost soul, an opportunity, however faint, for repentance, for redemption. I do not feel that, I do not see it. Even through a glass darkly, I do not see it.
On a deep and personal level, I am glad at this killing.
I am not glad that I am glad.
But I am glad, nonetheless.
(Posted May 3, 2011)