Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Americans are complicated, just like everybody else

You'd think that anybody who is so enlightened that they can regard the death of a mass-murderer with total analytic dispassion would also be enlightened enough to understand why the men and women in the street are excited to see him go.

I'm not sure Glenn Greenwald's take on Osama's death merits much response, because Glenn, as always, comically overstates his case. For instance, he says:
It is already a Litmus Test event: all Decent People -- by definition -- express unadulterated ecstacy at his death, and all Good Americans chant "USA! USA!" in a celebration of this proof of our national greatness and Goodness (and that of our President).
...conveniently ignoring the many millions of Americans that assuredly met last night's news with quiet satisfaction or sober reflection on what we've lost. First among them, the President himself. As far as I can tell, no one is criticizing these people in the slightest; I'm one, and I can say without hesitation that no one has troubled me about my reaction or my views.

But there's another problem with Greenwald's reasoning that bothers me more than his characteristic aversion to nuance.

Last night's celebrations were occasionally silly (and, in the instance of New York emergency responders or former soldiers, occasionally justified), but only Glenn Greenwald could look at crowd of drunk college kids and see a mob with "renewed faith in the efficacy and righteousness of military force." He's right when he says that people were happy to see a "dastardly villain" get his due. But to Greenwald, the crowds singing at Ground Zero were also participating in a "national celebratory ritual" -- a resurgence of bloody-mindedness in the American psyche -- no different from the jingoistic anger whipped up before the invasion of Iraq or after the capture of Saddam. In several cases, he makes the connection explicit.

To Greenwald, the distinction between Osama and Saddam -- that the former murdered thousands of Americans in cold blood, and plotted to murder many thousands more -- seems irrelevant. The important thing is that both men are simply playing the role of Bad Guy in a grand fiction orchestrated by our leaders to keep the masses in line. Both men are wearing black hats in the perpetual cartoon Western that, he believes, sums up the American view of history.

And because of this, for Greenwald, celebrating Osama's death is not much different than celebrating the invasion of Iraq. Worse still -- if you celebrated Osama's death, you were probably part of the same gullible class that drove us into Iraq and that demonized Saddam as the great mastermind behind 9/11. And to him, the people singing in front of the White House last night are equally liable to be tricked into supporting some other act of unsupportable American violence. The proof, such as it is, can be found in their enthusiastic support of this act of American violence.

Greenwald's view ignores the simple and obvious truth that bin Laden actually was different. Bin Laden actually did murder thousands of innocents in the United States and around the world. He actually had begun an organization dedicated to the pursuit of political aims through senseless violence against Americans. Among the seven billion people living on this planet, Osama occupied a completely unique place in the minds of many Americans, not because their government told them he should -- indeed, it often told them the opposite -- but because they saw his crimes for what they were and deemed them unforgivable.

In the legal world, there's a term for this: sui generis, or of its own kind. Without precedential value. Osama is sui generis. Despite what Greenwald says, cheering at the thought of Osama's death simply is not the same as cheering for any form of state-sponsored violence, past or future. Americans may not be exhibiting the perfect detached stoicism that he'd prefer, but they're not announcing their embrace of bloodlust or barbarism either. Being happy that an affirmed, confessed mass-murderer of your fellow countrymen has been killed really is a very long ways from being happy that some faceless national antagonist has been killed. For Greenwald, people who celebrated bin Laden's demise are of the same class as people who celebrated bin Laden's deeds. The comparision is ridiculous. Maybe the day will come when the nation unites to "glorify" the violent death of an innocent or a political adversary. But that day certainly wasn't yesterday.

When Greenwald tries to equate everyday New Yorkers to Islamic fanatics, he thinks he's highlighting the uncritical simplicity of the American worldview. But he's mostly highlighting the uncritical simplicity of his own.

I don't know if Greenwald thinks Americans are incapable of seeing the distinction between Osama and less evil men. Maybe he's so far down the rabbit hole of moral relativism that he can't see it himself.

No matter what, though, he's almost certainly wrong on the merits. Most of the celebrants in NYC and DC, being from NYC and DC, very likely opposed the war in Iraq, oppose the war in Afghanistan, and voted against George Bush. Many of them are probably critical of Obama's foreign policy, some skeptical of the military and its role in American life. These are not cities noted for their love of Bush-era torture regimes. Manhattan notoriously supported the so-called Ground Zero mosque by a wide margin. And all these people, holding all these views, all of which are anathema to Greenwald's conception of Americans as self-styled cowboy crusaders, will still hold these views next week, and next year. They're not likely to cheer us into war against Pakistan or Iran. But last night, they were glad -- maybe a little too glad --to witness a mass murderer brought to justice. It's a small, human thing. And I wish the people who are so eager to point out the complex humanity of monsters and murderers were also willing to recognize the complex humanity of Americans who aren't quite as judicious in their thoughts and feelings as Glenn Greenwald.

Or, you know, short version: I'm with Jon Stewart.

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