Americans, they know how to do a revolution properly. Well, almost. Even theirs wouldn’t have taken without considerable help from the Cheese Eating Surrender Monkeys (how soon we forget). Still, given the choice between national origin myths – the British desire for secret privilege granted by right of birth and the American kicking against authority and repression – and I know which I would choose.
And so they killed Osama bin Laden. I’m not interested here in the morality or ethics of the killing itself (hence killing as opposed to execution, murder, or any more ideologically charged words), what I’m specifically interested in now is the American reaction to it. More specifically still, how that reaction was broadcast around the world (or, again, was allowed to be broadcast) and how it might have been interpreted from afar.
I obviously wasn’t sad to see Osama go, and it’s very easy to make a convincing argument that the world is a better place without him in it. I’m certainly not saying I expected a period of mourning. Relief I could have understood; even a certain grim satisfaction at a job well done and the closing of one of the more traumatic chapters in a nation’s history (for all that it actually changed very little beyond the symbolic aspects). But the triumphal jubilation that was apparently the overriding theme in the immediate aftermath? Nope. It wasn’t right for Thatcher and it wasn’t right here. Downright ugly, in fact.
When even supposed bastions of the liberal establishment resort to fist-pumping exaltations over the extra-judicial killing of a foreign national during an unauthorized incursion into a third country’s sovereign territory, then eyebrows will get raised. It’s not the World Series or NBA Finals. It’s not Call of Duty, y’know?
This is why America isn’t universally adored around the world. They don’t “hate [y]our freedom.” They distrust a society that would appear to view the killing of a human being as legitimate cause for a nationwide festival of whooping and street parties. In my first draft of this post I wandered off here into the various hypocrisies of this, culminating in the inevitable comparison of death tolls on 9-11 and since the occupation of Iraq. But that’s not really what I want to say, and has already been covered far better and more eloquently by smarter people than me.
No, what I really want to focus on is, again, the immediate reaction as disseminated by the media. It really was like the aftermath of a sporting victory, not the death of an actual human being. It didn’t feel real either for me or, I strongly suspect, those doing the celebrating.
I wasn’t in New York or America when the Twin Towers came down. I don’t have firsthand experience of what it was like to be an American either then or after. Everything I say on the matter is secondhand supposition based on the images I’ve absorbed through screens of various sorts, and this obviously undermines any commentary I may offer on the emotions or thoughts of the people I saw hooting madly in their joy of death. I have to remember that these were – are – real people with all the complexities and flaws of the real people I do know and have actually met. It’s not a movie. It’s not a computer game. It’s not a spectator sport.
Except that it clearly is. That’s exactly how these people seemed to view Osama’s death. Another bunch of sprites collapses to the floor on a screen and America is entitled to celebrate a Flawless Victory for the first time since, well, WWII. Which also happened Far Away and Over There (cf. Kuwait, Vietnam, Afghanistan Mark I, Korea, The Barbary Wars…).
For all that I’m removed from the actuality of American experience, the people whooping it up in Times Square were even more removed from Bagdad, Kabul, and Abbottabad. Those events were just as secondhand for them as their celebrations were for me, and if they feel justified in cracking open a keg on international television I can certainly write a confused and rambling blogpost about it.
Because this is what happens when you try to maintain an empire. You try to keep the nasty unpleasant business as far away from your own doorstep as possible, and the result is that for those at home it comes to resemble nothing more than a fiction, of whatever sort is most prevalent at the time. At the height of the Raj and the Scramble for Africa we in Britain had Rudyard Kipling and H. Rider Haggard sketching culturally palatable fictions enabling the homeland to digest the more unpleasant aspects of colonialism. Nowadays in America it’s Activision and Electronic Arts who’ve taken up that mantle.
You can’t keep it out forever though. Trade balances are about more than currency and commodities. The West, and America especially, have made a habit of exporting less tangible negatives as well: the inequalities, the environmental degradation, the human rights abuses. Those huge great clouds of yellow smog over China? The clear-felling in the Amazon and SE Asia? The strip-mining in Africa? Who d’you think are the ultimate beneficiaries of that? In whose homes do you think the products thus derived ultimately end up?
And to that list of undesirable negative exports we can add death, in the clearest, most unarguable manner possible. America is exporting death and celebrating it.
That celebration more than anything gives lie to the Wild West, “don’t mess with us”, U!S!A! U!S!A! aura. It wasn’t the mute satisfaction of the Man With No Name, it was the hysterically inappropriate overcompensatory posturing of a nation a little too unwilling to face the ultimate implications of its collective choices, a nation seemingly incapable of distinguishing between the real world and a fiction it created for its own ends. I know, I’m English. We really have been through all that and look at us now; wailing at the death of a princess and cavorting upon the demise of a politician.
You don’t celebrate death unless you have a very shaky conception of what it really means. You don’t get to talk the talk unless you can walk the walk as well. When you end up being condescended by the Cheese Eating Surrender Monkeys for viewing the nitty-gritty of real life merely as a scaled-up computer game than you maybe want to think about how exactly you’re conducting yourself.
“Who are these soldiers who are ready to kill and not ready to die?”
General Phillipe Morillion, UNPROFOR, on the
American military’s reliance on technological warfare.