It shouldn’t surprise us that many American liberals, including Muslims, are now joining the celebrations of Osama bin Laden’s death. They may not agree with how the War on Terror has been conducted, but they have at least tolerated it and have no reason to view Bin Laden with sympathy in any case. Let us also not forget that Barack Obama, who campaigned for the escalation of the war in Afghanistan, is a liberal himself. To view the mass relief at Bin Laden’s death as a pathology of conservative tea partiers and frat boys who don’t know any better is therefore to miss the point. Bin Laden was the most successful terrorist this country had seen, and the trauma of 9-11 and the fear that he could strike again anytime haunted American minds in ways they were not prepared for. It is, for those who wish to be rid of the imperial anxieties of the past ten years, the time to feel triumphant.
This triumph, to be sure, has nothing to do with any actual improvement of American life. Unemployment is still high; unions are under attack; public schools nationwide are being forced to close or cut back; student debt, already barely manageable, is on the rise; 1 out of 9 black males between the ages of 20 and 34 is in prison; and America’s latest war, this one in Libya, is costing 600 million dollars a week. Even conservatives are shying from serious suggestions that American freedom has somehow been regained, since there are still wars that need to be fought.
The triumph can only lie in the feeling of redemption: Americans can finally convince themselves that the War on Terror has been, after all, worthwhile. Bin Laden’s death lets it all make sense: they can now proclaim that the deaths of millions of Muslims, the sacrifices of thousands of American soldiers, and the depletion of America’s own wealth in the process, have not been in vain.
At the same time, the celebrations ominously remind us of the depth of yearning for, the degree to which Americans indeed feel empowered by, destruction. Perhaps, American identity is still at its most tangible in the exercise of strength, in the brute imposition of force over others.
This is not an entirely new development: American freedom has always been “won” in conquest. It began first at “home,” with the genocide of indigenous peoples, before spreading to the rest of the world: the Philippines, the Caribbean, Latin America, Indochina, and now the Muslim world. Such a global conquest would not have been so acceptable without some moral justification, and that has typically required supervillains: Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il, Manuel Noriega, and so forth.
It was said that Bin Laden hated America’s freedom, and comparisons between him and Hitler, between Islamo-Fascism and Nazism, became the standard for some time. But that comparison has turned out to be merely for public consumption. The Pentagon announced that the CIA had codenamed Bin Laden “Geronimo,” after the legendary leader of indigenous resistance. When news of Bin Laden’s death first reached Obama, the message read: “Geronimo KIA.”
What can the codename “Geronimo” tell us? It has little to say about the character of Bin Laden, who was indeed a fascist, misogynist, and anti-Semite. (The codename was in fact “a bombshell on Native America.”). It does reveal a great deal about the history that has made America the empire that it is — and about how that history has etched itself into the consciousness of people, who have learned to make the destruction of any resistance against the empire, whatever its moral and political character, a shot in the arm of righteousness.
Ahmad Fuad Rahmat is a lecturer in Ethics at Marquette University.