Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Some scattered reflections on the termination of Osama bin Laden

By Robin Lakoff

It will take a while before we know what the event really means for us. As I write, virtually everything that can properly be said is equivocal.

The only unequivocally good part: the Osama assassination pushed the Windsor nuptials off the news.

The unequivocally fun part: enjoying the pundit class’ angst trying to keep “Obama” and “Osama” in their proper subject and object positions.

But more seriously, the events of the last several days raise some complicated considerations. The taking of Osama bin Laden resets our national discourse, and forces many observers to re-understand – for one thing – this president. Even the Donald had to rethink his stance: as he said, “I want to personally congratulate President Obama.”

On the one hand, this is a gracious tribute, especially from someone who had been (very publicly and entirely properly) savaged by the President at the White House Correspondents’ dinner the night before. On the other, the Donald remains irrepressibly the Donald. By making his congratulations “personal,” he placed himself and the President of the United States on a par, as equals and intimates. Nice work, if you can get it – and Trump always can.

It’s not quite clear how the President’s triumph will play out in American electoral politics. The 2012 election is still far away, and although Mr. Obama would certainly prevail over any conceivable opposition if the election were to be held today, it is impossible to know whether we will even remember this event – much less how we will remember it – in November 2012. Needless to say, that depends on what happens as a result between now and then.

And that thought leads to another consideration: right now, the killing of OBL was what we want. In the short run, its positive effects are obvious. But this country is too prone to thinking only in the short term. Over the long term – years, decades, and beyond – how might these actions be read by others? How will they affect the position of the United States among the nations of the world, both the Arab world and the rest? We need to bear in mind that political assassinations carried out in sovereign nations almost inevitably weaken the moral stance of those who did them in the eyes of others. We have to remember that, to us, OBL was an evil and thoroughly dangerous man, a vicious terrorist. But my “terrorist” is someone else’s “freedom fighter.” Because of our size and strength, we have never been good at perceiving our actions through the eyes of others, and this will be one more troublesome example of our blindness. Will those we are trying to conciliate – the Arab world in particular – see our actions as justifiable and virtuous, and be impressed by our show of strength, and be more likely to deny support to Al Qaeda and similar groups – or will they see them as the behavior of a bully who deserves to be punished? Our size and strength lets us feel that our needs, and our responses, are the only ones that count. But if we’re thinking long-term, if our ultimate aim is the elimination of terrorism by eliminating the need for terrorism – is this the message that will work best to accomplish this aim?

In this regard, the triumphalism and America-firstism displayed on Sunday night is especially disturbing. Of course people felt triumphant and wanted to demonstrate their delight, and that is completely understandable. On the other hand, killing a human being in cold blood, however justifiable, is something best viewed in a spirit of solemnity. Singing “God Bless America” in front of the White House must have felt wonderful – but how did it play on Al Jazeera? In the long run, responses like these do not serve our interests.

In general, what is to be gained by acts of vengeance, as this certainly was at least in part, and the responses to it have been to a significant degree. September 11 and other acts masterminded by Osama bin Laden were themselves acts of vengeance. For us to produce an act of vengeance in response to 9/11 is to mirror the terrorists’ behavior. In so doing, we become like them, again losing our moral strength. We do not want to suppress terrorism by becoming terrorists, even assuming that that would work.

We have to remember that actions like these, both 9/11 and 5/1, are at the same time utterances. One important difference between terrorism and war is that the latter is, first and foremost, a physical act (albeit with communicative components), while the former is, first and foremost, an act of communication or speech act (albeit with physical components). So when a nation engages in anything that can be perceived as terrorism, it is above all communicating something, and one thing it is necessarily communicating is how it perceives itself and wants to be perceived by others.