— Clarence Darrow
(No, not Mark Twain. Stay the hell away from those quotation clearing-house websites.)
As is so often the case with events whose implications and foundations extend far, far beyond my own little corner of reality, i really don’t know what to say.
I think it’s possible to state truthfully that in the death of any single person, there is always an element of tragedy. In the case of people like Bin Laden and Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot, the tragedy from my perspective is that they didn’t die sooner — ideally, so early enough that they never got a chance to do the things they did.
I think that as human beings, we make choices. If the choices we make include a decision to willingly reject the humanity of a specific group in order to allow and encourage the wholesale destruction of other human beings, then i think we deserve to be subject to the same rules we’ve applied to those other human beings. If you believe life has no value, then by definition, your life has no value, karma’s a bitch, et al.
Putting that another way — i’m a humanist and a pacifist by nature, and i am quite peacefully content with the knowledge that Osama Bin Laden is dead. Here’s the problem, though. Nothing changes as a result of this, and I think the expectation that something has changed is going to create a kind of psychic blowback that ultimately hurts a lot of people. I know that for people who are more closely connected to the events of 9/11 than i am, this moment does represent something tangible. Closure. An end to grieving. A chance to stop hating the fact that a mass murderer remains alive and well as an affront to the memory of his victims. And all that’s all well and good.
But all those things are about looking back, and looking back occludes the fact that there’s another Bin Laden out there somewhere, waiting to make the decision to willingly reject the humanity of a specific group in order to allow and encourage the wholesale destruction of other human beings. This is the guy that i want people to worry about. And not in the “Kill ‘em all, let god sort ‘em out” sense. In the sense of saying that on some level, we have a collective power to try to keep these people from happening.
Hitler was elected. Stalin locked in his power as a result of deals done in the dying days of World War II that our leaders signed off on. Pol Pot came to power because the west let him. Bin Laden was a product of a Saudi society that’s been dangerously corrupt and broken for generations, largely as a result of our hunger for Saudi oil. And that’s not a condemnation. No one is responsible for Bin Laden except Bin Laden. It’s just that as a species, we’re sometimes too quick to pretend that things happen in isolation, and that the truly unimaginable things that shock and stupefy and break us on every level can’t possibly be connected to the wide continuum of imaginable things that we’re confronted with every day, and which are within our power to change. But the continuum is all there is. The decisions that we as individuals, as collective cultures, as nations make are the foundations of everything.
Things happen in connection to each other. Things happen forward, not backward. Osama Bin Laden being dead doesn’t erase or undo anything that Osama Bin Laden did. We can’t change what’s done. All we can think about is changing the world in order to prevent the things we don’t want to happen next.