On Death and Vengence

Osama bin Laden is dead. Many have celebrated; an understandable reaction and one quite similar to celebrations attested to in the Bible. A most realistic document. Whether such rejoicing represents the highest human response to the death of an enemy those with greater wisdom can debate. The Bible would suggest not. A most idealistic document. Military analysts will know more than most of us, including the talking heads on cable TV, what this means for various US military engagements and national security more broadly. And only the most self-assured prophet can predict what it will mean for US relations with the Muslim world. Already widely divergent opinions (not to be confused with actual analysis) are afoot. All of the usual parties, from progressives appalled by any action undertaken by “empire USA” to “Bush was right after all” conservatives have weighed in and will weigh in on its meaning. All no doubt to advance their own political, professional, and ultimately economic interests. I hope that we can turn our attention to all those Muslim young people seeking freedom and democracy in the Middle East and elsewhere – they are the vast majority – and away from the psychopaths.

Perhaps the better question to ask, rather than answer, is what this might mean for our nation, still suffering the shocks felt on 9/11. A young friend noted, with some accuracy in my view, that the dogged quest to find bin Laden, his sudden end, and the celebrations following are a sign that as a nation the U.S. has not truly understood or grieved its losses when the towers fell. Of course individual families and friends have grieved those deeply personal losses. But as a nation have we really owned up to the great lesson of that day: that we are not invincible? Have we grieved the loss of self as superpower, the death on that September day of our pretensions to post-Cold War national security? For it appears that what we did not accept is like every other nation on earth we are subject to the whims of unpredictable and vicious enemies, and thus sudden and unbearable loss.

Indeed through two wars, and vastly larger numbers of covert operations, detentions, trials, and tribunals the US has carried on the idea that it can still control the world, and with it its own destiny. One writer declared after 9/11 that the event marked “the death of irony.” And yet the comics and satirists and pundits carried on. Another, (was it in the Post?) declared that foreign policy would never be the same and yet for 10 years policies of retribution and assertion of military dominance pioneered by Teddy Roosevelt at the turn of the last century have remained the mainstay of US diplomacy and military strategy. We continue to spit defiantly into the winds of change, when those same winds could be a healing balm to our troubled soul, and a comforting caress to our weary and over-stretched international muscle.

And now our nemesis is gone. Are we now back as the world’s all powerful superpower? I think if we are wise we will we realize that it is time to hang up the cape and quite trying to be superman or superpower in the name of either destiny or national security. It is time to weep over, and get over, the American Century so that we can begin to live in a new reality in which we are not the axis mundi. Our importance is in relationship others, and our destiny with and not ahead of them. Bin Laden did not bring that century to a close, but his ultimately failed attacks, perpetrated with the ultimate symbol of globalization against the ultimate symbols of global dominance, unwittingly marked its end. Our national denial, played out since then as we sought to avenge ourselves in wars whose value remains unproven, has simply delayed the de-centering of self in the world that is the inevitable and painful result of facing national maturity.

So with vengeance satisfied, perhaps we can now grieve the loss of the old United States. Then when the grief passes we can begin to embrace the new United States we are becoming, one who strength is not found in its capacity for vengeance, but in its capacity for grace. Perhaps we can get past reliving the glory days of our national youth and become something more for and with the world than savior and adventurer. It is time to learn that while Ulysses left us with legends, Telemachus gave the world a civilization. We have been a great nation, it is now time to be something more. Some words to read slowly and savor:

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain;
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood,
From sea to shining sea.

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
And every gain divine.

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam,
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self control,
Thy liberty in law.


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