Why we felt like it mattered so much
Ed. Note: With the Middle East once again in the news, I came across this essay I wrote after the killing of Osama bin Laden. Something struck me about it as relevant to today, so I'm reposting here. This essay was originally posted May 11, 2011.
I know that the timing of this post is a bit awkward given the light-speed of the news cycle, but something about the killing of Osama bin Laden and the subsequent national outpouring of hysterical excitement has really not sat well with me. On the surface (and for much of the passing week) I've assumed this is because I have never had a comfy relationship with violence of any sort. Perhaps it is a hair-trigger empathy gag reflex or something, but I have never been able to glory in death or violence perpetrated on anyone, whether they had it coming or not. This is why I don't watch torture-porn, or overly violent movies. I am literally unable to not place myself in the victim's shoes. Surely this reflex has a great deal with why I felt sick to my stomach watching people celebrating in the streets and waving American flags after finding out that yet another human being had been killed in this ridiculous decades-long blood-letting.
But in the last day or so I've begun to suspect that maybe there was something else going on, in both my reaction to the death and celebration, and also the celebration itself. For those born after 1970 it would seem that there has been very little for the US to celebrate. We've witnessed a great deal of amazing things, earth-shattering things, but very few of them have been celebratory. We've seen the embarrassing defeat of our military in Vietnam, the endless parade of failed nation-building exercises, the destruction of the banking industry...twice, a space shuttle explode, a president (nearly) brought down by a blowjob, the bursting of the only employment bubble of our lifetimes, two hazy wars, 9/11, decreased job prospects, lower wages, race riots, the explosion of wealth inequality to levels never seen in the history of this country, and the destruction of trust at all levels of the social contract. Yes, we've seen a whole lot of really big, fascinating shit, but nothing to get all happy feet about.
On the flip side, we are a generation of images. Damn if we haven't seen that V-day kiss (with confetti falling from the sky as if God himself were pissing streamers in celebration of America's blessed goodness) a million times, a billion times. We've seen countless video streams of people in other countries dancing in the streets at the election of some godsend of a politician, we've seen the smashing of the Berlin wall by exuberant, hysterical teenagers. We've seen all these things, and these images have been passed on like some sort of birthright, something we should be proud of and contented with, a legacy, the American way. And yet in our lifetimes every single moment of national unity has centered not around celebration, but tragedy, senselessness, a creeping certainty that we are living on the tail end of something that used to be cool, that used to be something special. We are like Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, hiding in our magnificent castle and praying the angry hordes will just stay outside for a few more minutes, a few more minutes, wondering why this is our lot to bear. We were only doing what our fathers did, and their fathers before them.
I see it in my thirty-something friends who should've already bought houses and gotten married and should be working on at least their first kid if not their second. I see it in the increasing restlessness of the static shrillness of YouTube and Facebook, a rising wail of morbidity that feeds on itself, a biomagnification of sorts that distills the negativity of the national mood to a higher and higher proof until we've created the emotional equivalent of Everclear. I see it in the waiting and waiting for something to happen, for some corner to be turned so that we can all get on with our lives.
But we begin to fear that maybe nothing will change, that it is our destiny to preside over the slow decay, to ride the black wave until all those images of confetti and celebration feel no more real than daguerreotypes of nameless babies from 150 years ago. And that fear coils us tighter and tighter until one day a famed terrorist is killed in a far-away country and we spring on the occasion as our ticker-tape parade, our V-Day, our Berlin Wall, because we've waited so long and we've been so patient, and damnit we deserve something to celebrate, don't we? Don't we? This is why we acted like it mattered so much, because we truly wanted it to. We truly wanted something to just end for once, to be black and white, to be easily understood and agreed upon.
Nevermind that a quarter of us don't believe bin Laden is dead, or believe that he wasn't killed on May 1, 2011 but died years ago from renal failure. Nevermind that bin Laden wasn't even an effective terrorist leader anymore and that Al Queda had moved on, had splintered into a thousand shiny knife points, glistening in the Middle Eastern sun. Nevermind the emptiness that crept back in as the blackness at the heart of it all peered right back at us ten minutes after the cameras shut off and the reporters walked away, after the cries had finished echoing off the walls and cement, and our flags wilted like unwatered flowers. Nevermind that bin Laden's death is a pale imitation of V-day, a penny candy to a wedding cake, a fragmentary delusion of national pride for a fractal and delusional time.
Maybe that's why I felt so unhappy watching the celebrations, because it didn't make any sense in context. It seemed too hysterical, too excited, a dramatic exclamation of exuberance that when you squinted didn't seem a whole lot different than Palestinians burning effigies of Bush in '03. Either way people were happy a dude got swallowed in flame. Seems a funny thing to cheer about to me.
I think it's easy to forget in a time as dismal as this, that the reason that young sailor grabbed that woman and kissed her in the streets of New York was not because the US had won World War II, or because we'd killed all those Germans and Japanese, or because the US had proven its superiority. No, he kissed that girl because the war was over, and because he was still alive.
The war was over.
And he was still alive.