Last summer, at a gun range in Honolulu, a friend and I chose the most ridiculous and jingoistic target the place had: Bin Laden's stoic face Photoshopped poorly onto the menacing body of a machine gun-toting white man. A couple of relatively liberal city slickers, we posed for a picture next to our bullet-riddled targets, which we thought were kitschy and, yes, ironic. Nine months later, long after I'd forgotten about shooting wildly at his effigy with an AK-47, bin Laden is dead.
Based on the gleeful smile I have in that shooting range photo, you might think I'd be shouting patriotic bromides in the streets, as other Americans have been doing since late last night in cities around the United States. I actually don't feel like doing anything of the sort, and I don't think I'm the only one.
Today is a strange day in American history, perhaps stranger than any we've had in the 21st century. On the one hand, we're reminded of the greatness of the United States—not her perfection, mind you, but her greatness: Attack us, and no matter who you are, we will brush ourselves off and find you. Our arms are long and our memories are longer, and, once we have the right information, we have the ability to hunt down one of the most heavily guarded people in the world in a matter of eight months—less time than it takes to gestate a baby. Unlike George W. Bush's premature declaration of "Mission Accomplished," this really does feel like the conclusion of something, the shaking off of a burden. On the other hand, in many ways, today seems stridently un-American, too.
In thinking about the death—the killing—of Osama Bin Laden, it seems shortsighted to not consider that the violent acts committed by Bin Laden, and terrorists like him, are reactions to American foreign policy. (For instance, Bin Laden has said outright that America's role in the Israel-Palestine conflict is what brought on September 11.) In a way, all we did yesterday was kill a monster we had a big hand in creating, while totally ignoring the major issues at the root of that monster's evil.
I also can't help but feel strange watching Americans run wild in the streets to celebrate a successful so-called "kill mission." In 2004, Americans were rightly outraged when a mob in Fallujah, Iraq, executed four U.S. contractors and burned their bodies in the streets, hooting and hollering and reveling in the deaths as they hung the charred corpses from a bridge. It was disgusting and reprehensible, but compare that behavior to what went on in Washington, D.C. A friend of mine overheard people gathered in front of the White House say things like "I want to wipe my balls on Osama's beard" and "I'm going to piss on his grave."
Then there's Emily Miller, the Washington Times' op-ed editor, who today tweeted, "I've never been so excited to see the photo of a corpse with a gunshot wound through the head." Of course, Miller should know that the picture she saw was probably a fake, but her sentiment suggests she would have fit right in at this "Osama's dead flash mob" at the University of Delaware on Sunday night:
Where is the patriotism in finding joy from gory photos? Where is it in "partying" at Ground Zero or the University of Delaware? What's particularly American about making out with your girlfriend at news of an assault that left dozens of people in a third-world country dead?
I'm happy that Osama Bin Laden is gone. He unabashedly dedicated himself to the wanton destruction of people around the world—remember that not just Americans are killed by terrorists—and the likelihood of him ever stopping that pursuit was nil. Still, in America, where we're taught from a very young age to not kick your enemies when they're down, all this chest-thumping in the wake of a man's execution seems misplaced at best, especially among "progressives."
American citizens often like to think of themselves as good Christians—decent, kind God-fearing people who defend what's right even when that's difficult, just as Jesus would have. Last night was an opportunity to live up to that ideal, to let the world know that we are powerful but we're not drunk with power. Instead, we got wasted and said we wanted to rub our balls on Osama's dead face, belying American exceptionalism by not acting exceptional, but entirely common.
I'm taking another trip to Hawaii later this month, and odds are I'll end up at another gun range. If I do, you can bet I won't be opting for the Osama target. That joke isn't funny anymore, and it probably never was.