Posted at 12:15 PM ET, 05/02/2011
By Susan Jacoby
I suppose that someone, somewhere in the United States finds it ethically repugnant that our government hunted down and killed Osama bin Laden. I am not that someone. It is just and necessary that this evil man was finally punished for the mass murders he engineered on September 11, 2001. But I am repelled by the scenes of mindless jubilation, from Times Square to the park in front of the White House, that erupted after President Obama delivered the news in a properly sober tone Sunday night.
I am even more repelled by the pundits who began blathering Monday morning about the renaissance of patriotism they discerned in the crowds of young people (mainly men) who materialized on the streets to chant “USA…USA,” on the mall to strip off their clothes in the reflecting pool, and near the bars around Times Square to lift a few cold ones after literally wrapping themselves in the flag. On NBC’s Morning Joe, Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal did everything but crow when she declared that the killing of Bin Laden sends a wonderful message to children because it demonstrates that “bad guys do get caught.” Mike Barnicle, another regular member of the commentariat at the table, saw the can-do spirit of America resurrected and predicted that regular guys looking for jobs would resume the search with more of a spring in their steps.
This is the sort of sentimental hogwash that has elevated unreason to a fundamental principle of American public life. “Bad guys do get caught.” One very bad guy was caught in this instance by years of intelligence work and by the Navy SEALs, the most elite military unit in the nation’s armed forces. That’s it. The episode says nothing about the general competence or achievements of Americans as a people or America as a nation.
I’m wondering if all of those patriotic young people will be motivated to actually vote in the next election. And I didn’t notice any lines Monday morning outside military recruiting offices. Talking about national pride is cheap, and today’s young Americans have an absolute assurance that they will not have to risk their lives for their country unless they choose to do so.
What we saw in the streets Sunday night and into the early hours of Monday morning was a demonstration of unearned joy. Far from home, a superbly trained military unit did what professional warriors do—took out an enemy of this country. Nothing less, nothing more. I was watching the New York Mets play the Philadelphis Phillies when the first rumors about Bin Laden’s death reached the stadium. You could see people getting the news from their cellphones and passing it to their neighbors, as the first chants of “USA” began in the crowd. This scene—people attending a sporting event while seeking additional diversion on their personal digital devices—is more than a metaphor for the way we conduct war now. It is the way we conduct war now.
If there is a moral here, it is emphatically not the childish mantra that “bad guys do get caught.” It is that unearned happiness is a fleeting, unreliable commodity that has nothing to do with reason, justice, or what it takes to build a decent society and a decent world.