Wanted: Dead or Alive

Or, in the case of Osama ben Laden, almost certainly better dead, one suspects. 

What has puzzled me is the lack of critical discussion about this topic in the West, even on philosophy blogs, as far as I have been able to tell. Is it because the killing was so clearly right? Or is it that on balance it is a winner even for those inclined to criticize? Many have remarked that the death will not mean the end of terrorism, and perhaps for now that’s criticism enough. Or perhaps it’s the fear of vilification that people who criticized the government around 911 received. Susan Sontag’s comments are still thought by some to be a blot on her records. Still, her closing words now have a very sad irony:

Politics, the politics of a democracy–which entails disagreement, which promotes candor–has been replaced by psychotherapy. Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us to understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen. “Our country is strong”, we are told again and again. I for one don’t find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that America is strong? But that’s not all America has to be.

Bill Maher got his ABC show cancelled because of remarks similar to Sontag’s. The government response to him, at least as Salon reported here, is itself quite scary:

Even the Bush White House (a frequent Maher target) stoked the outrage, with spokesman Ari Fleischer [said that the controversy around Maher was] a reminder “to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do. This is not a time for remarks like that; there never is.”

There have been some fiercely critical voices in fact. Kai Wright, editor of Colorlines, says:

Osama Bin Laden, evil incarnate, has justified so, so much American violence in the 21st century. We have launched two wars and executed God knows how many covert military operations in the ethereal, never-ending fight he personifies. We have made racial profiling of Muslim Americans normative, turned an already broken immigration system into an arm of national defense, and reversed decades worth of hard-won civil liberties while pursuing him, dead or alive. We have abandoned even the conceit of respect for human rights in places stretching from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo Bay in the course of hunting him down. Now, finally, the devil is dead.

Upon the news of this victory, crowds gathered in front of the White House and at Ground Zero to chant “U.S.A.! U.S.A!” It was as if we’d just won an Olympic hockey game, rather than capped a decade worth of war and recession with a singular act of violence.

Among the few other unenthusiastic voices has been that of Tara Parker-Pope, self-described as “New York Times Well blogger, author, busy mom, lapsed runner and pack leader of four ill-behaved small dogs.” She tweets @taraparkerpope

Troubled by the response to the Bin Laden news. Shouldn’t this be a time of reflection, rather than celebration?

I agree with her. What do you think?

16 thoughts on “Wanted: Dead or Alive

  1. I listen to a very mainstream, even conservative, radio news program every morning (in Chile), and they were very critical of the U.S. decision to attack Pakistan in defiance of international law and to kill Bin Laden (and family members) and were disturbed by the celebrations.

    The more progressive radio news program which I also listen to were even more critical.

    I also read a blog in an online Chilean news medium, which asked how Chile would react if a U.S. anti-terrorist squad were to enter a middleclass neighborhood in Chilean territory in the middle of the night, firing bullets, to kill a known terrorist who was hiding in Chile.

    I am not a Bin Laden fan: he surely would have cut my throat, since I’m Jewish, but how about if a crack squad of Iraqi patriots were to kill
    George Bush in vengance for the death of so many of their countrymen and women? How about a Vietnamese hit squad for Henry Kissinger?

  2. I concur. Whatever happened to “innocent before proven guilty”? “Justice has been done”–vigilante justice, justice without a trial? The celebrations remind me of the scenes of celebration from other countries over 9-11 that were taken by Americans to be so repulsive and degrading.

    For another insight into the politics behind the revelation I recommend this article: http://atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/ME03Df02.html?sms_ss=facebook&at_xt=4dc009cff67bf2bb%2C0.

  3. Please, please, please, can’t we have a little fun? Beating up Bad Guys is fun. Aggression is fun; fighting is fun; violence is fun. Why should the devil have all the good tunes? Please, please, please let’s can the moralizing. Ding-dong the witch is dead. Let us rejoice!

  4. Yes. I don’t draw lines.

    That said, I never really got het up about bin Laden. International affairs isn’t my thing. I’d love to see Newt Gingrich shot though. And I would be delighted to see all our Republican candidates trampled, pooped on and humiliated. So there. We gotta stop being nice–it turns people off.

  5. H.E.:

    I can appreciate the tribal aspects of the celebration.

    If the world is just that, one tribe against another, I hope that mine wins. If I had to choose, I’d much prefer to live in a world ruled by Bush and Kissinger (or Obama) than by Bin Laden.

    However, if international politics are basically tribal, I plan to skip
    future New York Times editorial pages, because their moralization of
    international struggle gets on my nerves.

    I’ll read John Le Carré novels to inform myself about international politics.

    By the way, even the very tribal and brutish Achillles finally relents and gives Hector’s corpse to his father for a decent burial. Couldn’t Obama meet Achilles’s tribal ethical standards?

  6. s.wallerstein, I liked HEB’s reference to the Wizard of Oz, the only problem being that the great harm done by him and by two wars is all too real.

    Thanks, CF, for the links. My Lebonese hairdresser has been urging me to read Aljazeera, and its many articles on OBL are interesting. One does get the feeling that a lot of leaders are at least saying they are glad he’s gone. Some exceptions in South America. See:http://english.aljazeera.net/news/asia/2011/05/20115241936984209.html

    Of course, a comparison case is Hitler. I’m always bothered in these cases by the Humean thought that our moral feelings are inflluenced by things like who lives close to us and who looks like us.

  7. J.J.

    The tribal view of life (which is very similar to what Hume observes, as you note) certainly counsels prudence in international relations, which means avoiding unnecessary wars.

    On the other hand, it rules out moralizing what is basically “us against them”. It does not rule out ethics (as in Virtue Ethics) in our dealings with other tribes, as my example from Homer points out.

  8. Dammit! This isn’t a tribal issue–at least for me. To me it’s about the niceness of the Left that turns people off.

    As far as tribalism goes I think it would be nice if we could STOP being tribal. That’s one of the ideals here in the West to which we give lip service but don’t follow. I’m for following it–for taking seriously that we don’t operate according to race and blood, that we accept people as US providing they buy into our culture regardless of what they look like. I’m just old-fashioned.

  9. H. E.

    I’d say that contemporary tribes are based more on culture than on race and blood.

    My “race” is closer to that of Osama Bin Laden than to Barack Obama.

    In any case, prudence generally dictates that tribes “live and let live” with one another.

  10. Then you’ve re-defined tribalsim. Culture is amenable to choice; race isn’t. And that’s what’s wrong about tribalism.

    In addition to being, to some extent, a matter of choice culture carries practices and values. And the values of non-Western cultures are defective and oppress their members–women in particular. That’s one very good reason for working to destroy them.

  11. H.E.

    Wouldn’t it be a good idea to clean up our own act first before we sail out to save the rest of humanity?

    There are so so many things wrong with our own culture (wherever the borders of “our” culture lie).

    It’s practical to start at home: we understand (to a certain extent) how oppression and exploitation function at home, while we understand very very little of how they function in Afghanistan.

  12. An interesting statement from a father of a 911 victim:
    Yet, no federal official has been held to account. Not one from the Clinton administration. Not one of the Bush administration officials who ignored the Gore Commission’s recommendations for improved airline security, nor anyone from the State Department whose officials, in violation of law, regulation and common sense, issued visas for the asking to the 9/11 terrorists.

    So, no, I can’t celebrate the death of bin Laden. Too many Americans, who were paid to protect this country but failed to, have skated free of blame.

    When they are called to account, and when proper measures have been
    taken to protect us from future attacks, then I will celebrate


  13. No, we shouldn’t clean up our act first. We aren’t doing great but were doing better than most. In the US women are paid 83¢ to the male dollar (the figure varies). That’s bad. In Afghanistan they’re regularly beaten up and occasionally have their noses cut off. That’s worse. Liberal self-flagellation isn’t doing us any good. Western culture isn’t perfect but it’s immeasurably better than other cultures for women, and for everyone else. Let’s be honest. Romanticism about these other cultures, and denial isn’t doing anyone any good.

  14. H.E.:

    From the beginning of this conversation, I acknowleged my preference for western culture, signaling, as is obvious, that I would prefer to live in a world governed by Bush than by Bin Laden.

    What is at issue is how much we can do to help those who are oppressed in Afghanistan, women, gays and the inevitable underclass of that society and if those of us who sincerely want to help the insulted and injured of Afghanistan can do so without being used by Bush and all those who see southeast Asia as geopolitical spoils.

    There are local groups in Afganistan, feminist groups, human rights groups, possibly groups in favor of sexual diversity, and I would suggest that supporting such groups with a check or with writing an article for the media is a more positive step than getting involved with the geopolitical schemes of U.S. imperialism, be it in Republican or Obamaistic form.

  15. I don’t see any reason why we can’t both be elated and reflective at the same time. That’s what I see many people doing–both celebrating and pondering the fact that they are celebrating. (Like Jon Stewart on Monday night!) I find that after pondering, my inclination to celebrate is not reduced.


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