Beholding the jubilant, flag-waving crowds of mostly young, mostly white Americans gathered outside the White House and in Times Square and at Ground Zero celebrating the assassination of Osama bin Laden last night, it felt as if the United States had just won the soccer World Cup or vanquished the enemy-du-jour in whatever sport it is they dominate. I imagine this is what it was like after the 1980 “Miracle on Ice,” in which the US men’s Olympic ice hockey team stunningly upset the Soviet juggernaut. “USA! USA!” the victorious celebrants chanted with guttural, mind-numbing monotony, as if they themselves had something to do with finding and offing bin Laden. Here were my people, cheering and chanting, chanting and cheering, cheering the death of a fellow human being.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m happy that Osama bin Laden has exited stage left. In a brief moment of base human instinct, I jumped up and uttered some sort of celebratory shout when I first heard the news. A little song even played in my head: “Ding, dong, Osama’s dead, they got their shot, right through his head, ding, dong Osama B is dead!”
Then I got a hold of myself. It was a sobering moment for so many reasons. First, I remembered that it was my America that funded, armed and trained bin Laden and thousands of other terrorists like him. My government (from the Carter through at least the first Bush administration) had positively encouraged him to commit deadly acts of terrorism against countries and people we did not like; it was only when he turned his wrath on us (because we stationed “infidel” troops in Saudi Arabia, the heart and soul of the Muslim world) that he suddenly became Public Enemy Number One. Weapons sold or gifted to bin Laden and his ilk are still killing US and coalition troops in Afghanistan. Of course, our (mis)leaders have done everything in their power so that we might forget the dubious debut of the al-Qaeda founder, whose legions of terror Ronald Reagan called “freedom fighters.” He even welcomed a group of them to the White House, while our fawning mainstream media lauded them as “heroes.”
Those “heroes” would go on to become al-Qaeda and within several short years begin killing Americans.
Next, I remembered the deplorable scenes of partying crowds passing out pastries and shooting guns off into the air to celebrate bin Laden’s 2001 terror attacks against the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. While the Muslim world certainly has ample reason to despise US foreign policy, from the unconditional support of Israeli ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people, to the seemingly constant military interventions in the region and around the globe, to our invasive, disrupting and corrupting cultural imperialism and much, much more– the sight of one group of human beings celebrating the deaths of others left me full of rage.
Now, many of us are doing exactly the same thing. Oh, you can tell me there’s a difference, that Osama bin Laden was evil incarnate and the thousands who died on 9/11 were innocent heroes, but a human life is a human life and all human life should be treated with a modicum of dignity and respect. Besides, although it is accepted without question in this country that bin Laden is indeed evil and that the dead of September 11 were all innocents, an honest and objective examination of the facts easily tells us otherwise.
As difficult as it is for most of us to admit that not everyone killed on 9/11 was innocent, admit it we must. Bin Laden specifically and meticulously chose US military and economic targets that day, just as the US bombs military and economic targets in the countries it wages war against. Moreover, bin Laden’s suicide pilots struck their carefully chosen targets with chilling precision. Would that we could say the same about American attacks against our “enemies!”
We were so fond of calling bin Laden and his cronies “cowards,” but honestly, what in the world is cowardly about hijacking planes full of passengers and crew, greatly outnumbered, overpowering them with nothing but box cutting knives, then unflinchingly and expertly piloting those planes into buildings knowing full well you were going to die? Those 9/11 hijackers exhibited bravery the likes of which I’ve never seen before in my 37 years on this earth, bravery every bit as remarkable as that displayed by the police, firefighters and others who ignored every natural survival instinct hardwired into our brains over millions of years of evolution and rushed into those burning, crumbling towers. Of course, the valor of the 9/11 first responders came from a good place, a place of life, while bin Laden’s minions sought to spread death and destruction.
Yes, bin Laden was an unrepentant terrorist with the blood of many Americans on his hands. But was he more evil than, say, the two American Presidents who hunted him down? A terrorist is what the big army calls the little army, and rest assured that if bin Laden had access to thousands of combat aircraft, tanks, missiles, nuclear weapons, special forces soldiers, all-seeing satellites, millions of troops and trillions of dollars in “defense” budgets, he wouldn’t have had to hijack commercial airliners and fly them into buildings, would he?
Lest you’re taken aback by my assertion that Bush and Obama are just as “evil” as bin Laden, allow me to explain. Team terror, in all its incarnations, captained by Osama bin Laden, has killed around 3,000 American civilians in the last twenty years. In retaliation, America’s War on Terror, largely a war of revenge and retribution, has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of innocent men, women and children in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Iraq. That last country, where more than 100,000 civilians have died as a result of the US-led invasion, had nothing whatsoever to do with the 9/11 attacks. Yes, bin Laden purposely targeted civilians while most of the innocents killed as a result of America’s lust for vengeance and global domination were “collateral damage,” but that is of no comfort at all to the families of those killed. There are no “collateral” mothers, sons, sisters, grandfathers or friends.
Of course, if we point out that this American slaughter of tens of thousands of innocent people tends to breed more terrorists, we are instantly branded as “unpatriotic.” We excoriate anyone who dares submit that 9/11 was not a cold-bloodedly offensive attack; a jihadist bolt from the blue delivered out of pure evil and hatred of our freedom, while instantly dismissing any assertion that the events of September 11 were actually retaliation for decades of imperialist American policies and actions. Such talk is heretical in the church of American Exceptionalism. But that’s exactly what they were. One man’s terrorist is indeed another man’s freedom fighter.
It’s funny, but I always remember that 1980s B-action flick Red Dawn when I think of our War on Terror. That film was released during a very tense period of the Cold War. Reagan’s Star Wars boondoggle had upped the ante and renewed the nuclear arms race between the two superpowers, which had calmed down somewhat during the detente period of the 1970s. In the movie, Soviet and Cuban troops occupy the United States and a group of high school students, the lead played by a young Patrick Swayze, take to the woods and launch a war of resistance against the invaders. Calling themselves the Wolverines, these freedom fighters commit a string of terrorist attacks against the occupying armies. With each successive terror attack, audiences cheered on the brave Wolverines. Now, let me ask you this: what is the difference between the Wolverines and the “terrorists” who resist American invasion and occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan? If you’re honest with yourself, “none whatsoever” will be your answer.
But none of this seemed to matter to the cheering crowds gathered together in an orgiastic celebration of imperial violence last night. Steeped in a culture of spectator sports in which our favorite teams’ success is internalized and personalized as desperately needed ego boost for our overworked, overstressed, overweight lives, it is only natural that millions of us seek the same fulfillment through America’s imperial conquests and through overt displays of individual (yet herd-like) patriotism.
Shhh… Listen harder. It’s not difficult to imagine the mindless chanting of “USA! USA!” as the bleating of sheep living in blissful ignorance of the slaughterhouse just down the road.
Bombs, bullets and bombast have not only become America’s preferred methods of solving the complex problems faced by the bloated empire, they have become cherished cornerstones of the “American Way.” Upon news of bin Laden’s death, radio stations across the heartland and even the US Air Force Academy played Toby’s Keith’s post-9/11 country smash hit Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (“we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way”). That bombast was on full display in the words of President Obama’s address to the world– he actually called the assassination of bin Laden “a testament to the greatness of our country”– as well as in the flag-waving, anthem-singing, USA-chanting crowds cheering death.
I, for one, prefer the reflective wisdom of Talat Hamdani, whose 23-year-old son Mohammed was killed in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. Speaking to Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, Hamdani, while very happy that bin Laden was found, said she hoped America could move forward on a “path of peace and justice” instead of the dark road of “revenge and killing” that we’ve been barreling down, full speed ahead.
But based on what I saw last night in Washington and New York, it looks like Americans like their peace and justice served up with a steaming pile of revenge and killing. The lumbering empire plays on, sticking with its bloody game despite being past its prime and oblivious to the glaring reality that there are far more pressing concerns that are far more deserving of our blood, sweat and treasure than waging a never-ending War on Terror. Can you remember the last time an American was killed by an Islamic terrorist? Neither can I. Yet we’ve spent over a trillion dollars– that’s $1,000,000,000,000– fighting this senseless war.
And all the while, we stand on the sidelines, reveling in every bloody play, anticipating the annihilation of our next hapless opponent, cheering on the death and destruction.
“USA! USA! USA!”