The Nation's Pulse

We Have No Cause to Lecture Happy People

Was it wrong to cheer the news of Osama bin Laden's demise?

By 5.6.11

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Should baseball crowds at a game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the New York Mets have chanted "USA! USA!" on hearing about Osama Bin Laden's death at the hands of U.S. Navy SEALs last Sunday night? Should college students at the White House gates have done the same thing?

Critics are right to note that the chant was ill-suited for marking the death of any man, even one who had it coming. That said, if going to hell in a hand basket were a new phenomenon, Germany would never have lent the word "Schadenfreude" to the English language. The recrimination now voiced by sensitive souls is not necessarily the beacon of righteous indignation that it wants to be.

While the "USA chant" is usually heard at international sporting events and no commando operation entailing risks like these will ever be mistaken for a game, the line between competition and combat is not as bright as people who've never enjoyed a Rocky movie, darkened the door of a dojo, or watched a mixed-martial-arts fight might think. Color commentary in the National Football League is rife with combat metaphors, yet all concerned realize that "trench warfare" between offensive and defensive lines would be orders of magnitude more lethal if guns were involved. No one expects football people to beg pardon from professional warriors for co-opting the imagery of battle.

To the apparent disappointment of self-consciously progressive friends, I'm no good at filling the Claude Raines role in Casablanca, so I could not even feign shock at the celebration of Bin Laden's demise. What too many are quick to lose sight of, however, is that the people chanting USA were not doing that to glorify murder: our country's initials can as easily acclaim the professionalism of Special Forces operators, or signify approval of a gutsy presidential decision. Last Sunday night, they did both of those things.

In other words, it is uncharitable to interpret gladness at Bin Laden's death as a sure sign of moral degeneracy. Quiet satisfaction would have been a more decorous response to the news of his passing, but ours is not a culture given to quiet satisfaction. Instead, we send children to public schools where administrators keep a wary eye out for tee shirt slogans or designs that someone somewhere might regard as divisive. Some of us have forgotten that when a weight is lifted from our shoulders, the impulse to celebrate with passerby of goodwill is wonderfully human.

The fog of war is nothing to the dark of willful blindness. We were told by apologists for Islam that bin Laden was not "a true Muslim." Despite that assertion, the U.S. Navy gave him at least the semblance of an Islamic burial. Whatever ceremony attended that burial was supposed to placate Muslims. Like most such gestures (and as George Neumayr noted in this space), it backfired. "Militants" who think they've suffered an exquisite insult now quibble impotently about whether Bin Laden's burial was Islamic enough. Let 'em quibble. That's an argument it's nice to be able to have.

What we know for sure is that by his own confused lights, Bin Ladin was a leader in an allegedly noble cause, out to kill as many Americans as possible. His bid for leadership in the Arab world had failed, but the armchair quarterbacks now trying to induce a twinge of guilt in America's military-industrial complex by calling the late al Qaeda chief a "fringe" character have yet to explain how a fringe character could enjoy the name recognition and influence Bin Laden had, or why special forces were needed to go after him. No less an observer than German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared on live TV that she was "delighted" by Bin Laden's death. Meanwhile, pundit Christopher Hitchens reminded everyone less versed in geopolitics of the obvious: "In what people irritatingly call 'iconic' terms, Bin Laden certainly had no rival," Hitchens wrote. "The strange, scrofulous quasi-nobility and bogus spirituality of his appearance was appallingly telegenic, and it will be highly interesting to see whether this charisma survives the alternative definition of revolution that has lately transfigured the Muslim world."

Part of what I think Hitchens means is that there's no reason for anyone to feel morally superior to the people who greeted Bin Laden's death with repeated shouts of "USA!" As blogger Tom Maguire points out, crowds would have been shouting the same thing if President Obama had announced just the capture of Bin Laden. When that is understood, several corollary assertions fall into place: "Maybe we aren't tastelessly celebrating [Bin Laden's] death. Maybe we are just celebrating the end of his era and the triumph of the good guys over the bad guys (sorry for the cryptic reference, libs -- Team USA is the good guys.) In which case, the handwringing is utterly misdirected," Maguire wrote.

Let me put it this way: Notwithstanding the truism that "no man is an island," one can welcome the efficient dispatch of a terrorist without hating that terrorist, for much the same reason that one can welcome the removal of a cancerous tumor without hating cancer.

Another item complicating reaction to Bin Laden's death is that eager beaver progressives have dammed the river of American culture with so many protected classes that few expressions of patriotic pride can still be used in polite company. What's an assembly to do when welcome news breaks while hardware stores that sell American flags are closed and country singers are home with their families? Some people sang the Star-Spangled Banner, but our anthem is famously tough to sing well. Ray Charles could always be counted on for a goosebump-inducing rendition of "America," but he's no longer with us. And absent a cover version by the cast of Glee that will never be made, the Battle Hymn of the Republic isn't likely to reclaim its lost mojo.

Even a Buddhist meditation teacher who worries about the perils of misdirected jubilation and collective failure to realize that there is "no such thing as us and them" might be persuaded to see shouts of "USA!" in a more forgiving light. The Buddhist I am thinking of said she would rededicate herself to the idea of brotherhood, even brotherhood with people who want her dead. Fortunately, the connotation of that USA chant helps us both, because it's a chant that signifies brotherhood without applying religious litmus tests that anyone holding a disfavored creed might otherwise flunk.

Christian faith tells me that Osama Bin Laden was a child of God. Reason and observation tell me that he made discord and murder his life's work, doing his best to ignore both his own dignity and the dignity of others, especially if they were not Muslims. Given those realities, it really doesn't matter why President Obama approved the lethal strike, whether Bin Laden was armed when found, or if a military dog accompanied the SEAL team. The salient fact is that Bin Laden died in a war that he himself had started, killed by brave men with a precision rare in the annals of military operations.

To welcome Bin Laden's passing or feel pride in the martial prowess of fellow citizens may be indelicate, but it is not wrong. That feelings of relief or admiration sound coarse when filtered through a three-letter chant says more about the limits of our public vocabulary that about the morality of people doing the chanting, at least some of whom I hope and suspect are now praying for Bin Laden's soul.

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About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.