Death is something we try to avoid, mainly by hiding it in plain sight.
From childhood we watch superheroes and movie stars inflict great violence in an atmosphere where no one really dies, or those that die deserve it.
The fifty nameless henchmen just get sprayed with gunfire or roundhouse kicks and lie down. Perhaps they get up, or perhaps not. I’ve often wondered whether those henchmen had families. Perhaps it was just a job.
A more accurate depiction is one I saw at the Gangarama temple. A poster there shows the human body in various stages of decay, bloated after death, scavenged by animals, eaten by worms, gradually decaying to bones. People that die often release their bowels and generally start to make themselves unpleasant almost immediately. Nobody shows that on TV. Most people who’ve killed admit feeling nauseous or physically ill. They don’t show that either. In our collective imagination, death seems cool.
Indeed, from time immemorial we’ve mythologized warriors — Rama, Achilles, Beowulf — and generally ignored the rotting corpses and cycles of violence they sustain. Our history is literally defined by death, our entertainment is punctuated by it and yet it’s the thing we least like to think about. It’s hiding in plain sight.
Last week Osama bin Laden was shot by American troops. In Obama’s careful speech he said “after a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden.” Later he referred to the “capture and death of Osama bin Laden”. OBL was executed via the gun rather than by cruise missile. He was killed, he died, and before his body started to bloat and decompose they dumped it into the sea. Other people were killed as well. They’re footnotes now, but their lives were probably important to them.
And yet, it felt good. I think most people were happy. Some were ecstatic. As one reader, a World Trade Center survivor, wrote to Andrew Sullivan, “I sat on my couch Sunday night and poured a large glass of Irish whiskey and toasted the death of the man who had tried to kill me. ‘____ you’ I said out loud.”
“Then I went upstairs and looked in on my three sleeping children — my oldest born in 2002 — and I kissed them all. Then I settled in next to my wife — my beautiful wife, who will be married to me 10 years tomorrow, and who is carrying our fourth child. She for many long hours thought her husband of five months was crushed to death in the towers. I put my hand upon her belly and I closed my eyes and I prayed that Osama bin Laden would know the fullness of Christ’s mercy.”
That, I think is an appropriate reaction. As Notorious BIG said, “I would never wish death on nobody. Cause there ain’t no coming back from that.” Honestly, it’s too scary and powerful a thought. Death is a moment when we are all powerless, and in the face of that obviously greater power, I think all ideas of human justice and retribution demur.
Some friends of mine have reacted with indignation that anyone could celebrate the death of Bin Laden. One even called him a sheik and mourned the death of his hero. Others crowed with joy. I, perhaps predictably, have tried to wedge myself in between. I fully understand the realpolitik of the world and think that this world is a better place without Bin Laden. At the same time, however, I think this whole system is messed up and won’t change unless we believe and practise something better. Bin Laden is part of a cycle of violence that began thousands of years ago and has obvious spins in the last century. He fought the Soviets, implicitly on America’s side, and then fought America. America killing him won’t necessarily end the cycle, but it feels good at this moment. He was a unique person who did change the arc of history and was poised to wreck more havoc ahead.
What I think really killed Bin Laden, however, was not the bullets in his skull. As a human being I can only empathize with that and feel compassion. As a body bereft of meaning, the last beat of a heart is still a loss. As an idea and an ideology, however, thank God Bin Laden is gone. It’s important to remember, however, that his physical passing is really a footnote to that greater jihad. For me what’s provided catharsis is not Bin Laden’s death but the signs of life among the Arab youth. Their desire to get their own lives in order without blaming America or circumstance, but by just doing it. And doing it peacefully, without killing, even as they are killed. Bin Laden was the last century. This is a new one, and the ten year grace period is over. A lot of stuff has changed in the past 10 years, dictators gone, terrorists killed. We have a new beginning and in this one, I hope that we can celebrate life.
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