What an awful world ours is, sometimes. The handwringing started as soon as tidings broke that Osama bin Laden had been shot dead in a secret US military operation (missed it, did you, Julian Assange?).
Is it appropriate to celebrate the death of another human being? The Vatican says it isn’t, if you’re Christian. Others, say it isn’t, if you’re a humanist. Some say it’s narrow-minded. Others bemoan the simplistic, binary world view that such a reaction supposedly reflects. A few think it is insensitive to Muslims, or to the victims of the wars of the last decade.
Well, forgive us for being human. Having been horrified to watch thousands of innocent people die in response to Osama bin Laden’s calls to kill Americans, unbelievers, and just about anyone else who isn’t his kind of radicalised Muslim, I was elated to hear of his death.
More importantly, the people who hunted him for going on 20 years – since long before 9/11 – are naturally overjoyed that their elusive objective has finally been met.
Sure, this will find expression in jingoism and unseemly joy. American streets were filled with scenes of jubilation that, in the cold light of morning, may appear to be an indecorous indulgence of long-suppressed feelings of hate and revenge. But then, that’s what you get when you wage war. People have emotions that are not ruled by the cold light of rational thought. At least they weren’t out in the streets cheering a successful assault on civilian targets that killed thousands.
How sad must be the lives of those who would deny themselves and others purely emotional reactions to events, even for a brief while.
Such emotions do not negate a more nuanced world view, in which hate and revenge are not what drives policy. Cheering that the bastard is dead does not deny that Bin Laden’s campaign of terror was possible only because of grievances among his followers. It does not deny that some of those complaints may well be justified. Or that, perhaps, they’re wrongly directed or based on misconceptions, but that they still reflect very real problems that could use attention.
Millions of words have been written about the nature, strategies, subtleties, implications and dangers of the struggle against … geez, there isn’t even a word for it that I’ll get away with. But you know what I mean: that thing where bad people kill innocent…, no wait. That thing where people whom I shouldn’t presume to judge deliberately try to kill other people who cannot, by virtue of their skin colour, nationality, wealth or geographical location claim innocence. You know, the “war on terror.”
But this isn’t the time for semantics and pretentious intellectualising. Today isn’t a day to rehash a decade’s worth of arguments and controversy and conflict that has poisoned relations between peoples, religions and cultures. It is a day of victory, limited and marred by blood though it is.
I’m reminded of a scene described by Winston Churchill, when he visited the site on which a large bomb had fallen during the London Blitz. Although a good night during those dark months was one in which only 500 civilians died, the bystanders were weary, but not cowed.
“When we got back into the car,” Churchill recalled, “a harsher mood swept over this haggard crowd. ‘Give it ’em back,’ they cried, and ‘Let them have it too.’ I undertook forthwith to see that their wishes were carried out, and this promise was certainly kept. The debt was repaid tenfold, twentyfold, in the frightful routine bombardment of German cities… Certainly the enemy got it all back in good measure, pressed down and running over. Alas for poor humanity!”
When the horror of war is unleashed, in whatever form and for whatever reason, horror will ensue. Denying people space to express their emotional response to the losses and victories in such a conflict is only going to turn them into repressed, neurotic wrecks, ever fearful whether what they think and feel will be acceptable to those who presume to preach moral virtues from on high.
Worse, it encourages a dangerous defeatism, which was one of Churchill’s greatest fears throughout the war. This is why the Blitz’s scenes of nationalism and unity were played up as stirring propaganda which endures to this day, and why any expressions of bitterness, fear or dissent were swept under the carpet.
Once Hitler was dead and Germany had been crushed, it was entirely appropriate for the defenders of the free world to rejoice. The victory came at the cost of far more civilian casualties, deliberately inflicted by both sides, than we of this modern age can even begin to imagine. Alas for poor humanity, indeed! However, the blood and the tragedy doesn’t take away the right to celebrate a victory, whether real or symbolic, tactical or strategic.
The same million-strong crowd that celebrated in the streets of London on Victory in Europe (VE) day, waving flags and singing the anthem with unapologetic jingoism, were the people who turfed Churchill out on his ear at the first opportunity. By the cold light of morning, they found that he represented all the suffering and deprivation that the war had brought, and they wanted nothing more to do with it. This cold and cruel (though arguably misguided) rationality did not stop them cheering the victory to which he had led them, or honouring his achievements.
As for me, I don’t particularly care what the Vatican or the moralising editorialists or the intellectual Twitterati write. (Although, props to @ReallyVirtual, who unwittingly live-tweeted the raid on Bin Laden’s compound because he was annoyed with the helicopter circling overhead in the dead of night.)
The importance of Bin Laden’s death in its larger context can be left for another time. I will politely ignore Channel Islam’s disgraceful description of Bin Laden’s death as “martyrdom,” as if he was an innocent defender of his faith, and not a secular megalomaniac who abused a religion to commit great and deliberate crimes against humanity. We can argue semantics again tomorrow.
Today, in the words of my fellow Daily Maverick columnist Sipho Hlongwane: “America spent ten years in mourning over 9/11. I’m not begrudging them a single thumb’s up.”
Today, as on 11 September 2001, we are all American. I make no apology for my joy. DM