post regarding the death of osama bin laden

I write a lot about privilege. About how white guys get a whole lot of it, and guys in general, and white people in general. I also write about how, even though I am a female of color, I have been afforded a lot of white privilege. And I generally hope to encourage those with privilege to identify it and acknowledge it, because that’s the only thing that can lead to fewer disparities between genders and races. I don’t think I’ve ever said that acknowledging, or actively giving up, that privilege is easy. Or fun. Privilege is awesome. And there is a certain kind of privilege that I have, which I identified yesterday, that I have absolutely no interest or intention in giving up anytime soon.

It is this privilege that keeps me from rejoicing in Osama bin Laden’s death. I’m not sure if it’s that privilege that keeps me from having any feelings about his death whatsoever. That could just be my own way of processing, and my own way of remembering how completely baffled I was when I was 13 years old and it was September 11, 2001. That year was incredibly confusing, and I couldn’t figure out who had caused the attacks, since everyone kept talking about this bin Laden guy, but then we decided to take down this Hussein guy instead.

I have middle class American privilege, and it’s probably also the same privilege for much of the upper class and even the lower class, as long as it lives in America. There are three facets to that privilege: murder, military, and political awareness. That privilege means I grew up in a world where murder has never, ever been necessary. This is a truth on a personal, tangible level, because I did not grow up around violence, but also, in my eyes, political, because the United States is blessed with an imperfect but rather efficient justice system that may include but does not require the death penalty, and because the United States is blessed with having, until recently, been a first-world nation, so in my understanding, we should have quite a few strengths at our disposal, enabling us to reach conclusions, agreements, or justice in ways that don’t require the death of humans, whether civilian, political, or military. Speaking of that, my microcosm also, until very recently, did not include any members of the military, so I did not live in a world in which people had to (by making a choice to be in a career that required the to) kill other people, or put themselves in harm’s way, and I did not live in a world where I knew people who died in the line of action, or who had missing spouses, children, or parents because they were away doing stuff I still don’t pretend to understand. Finally, that privilege extended to my political awareness, because I did not grow up in a society that required me to know what was going on in any sort of life-or-death way. I did not grow up having to understand why it was that I had to avoid the landmines next to my home. I was not an American preteen living during one of the World Wars, being encouraged to buy war bonds or plant victory gardens, or being told that rations just did not allow for a real Halloween with real candy. I was never a Cuban teenager being required by Castro to be brainwashed and then charged with the task of brainwashing others. I am very lucky not to have to deal with excessive politics just to get my day done. My awareness of political figures when I was young went from the mayor straight to President Clinton, who was mostly just that guy who played the saxophone and then did something with some girl named Monica that made everyone mad at him. So the September 11th attacks came as a huge shock, but also kind of as a huge nothing, to me. And so, because of this great privilege I have (and it’s the murder-is-never-necessary part that I don’t want to give up; the other parts I already have, for the most part), that I do not feel it is appropriate to rejoice in the death of someone.

I can understand the feelings of relief some people might have, and I can see the political implications for Obama’s reelection, and I can’t say that I’m politically sad he’s gone, but frankly, I can’t say Osama bin Laden has been up to much except hiding for the past nine years (again, that could just be my privilege of ignorance talking), and regardless of the major tragedy he caused, in my worldview, killing him should not have been on the table.

And while I accept that there are limits to my compassion here, because of that privilege, and I am not unwilling to let others have their feelings about bin Laden, I am offended by the crass statements I have seen on Facebook for the past twelve hours or so. Some just seem silly, like “I will sleep easier tonight,” because, again, if you live in the United States, I sincerely doubt that you have spent every night in the last nine years with insomnia. Especially if you’ve grown up with any of the privileges I just outlined. Statuses like “ding dong, the dick is dead” just make people look like ignorant assholes. And that Obama meme that says, “Sorry it took so long for me to show you my long-form birth certificate–I was too busy killing Osama bin Laden” bothers me for so many reasons, like how I am a pacifist, and like how Obama himself did not kill bin Laden, and like how it presumes Obama’s political agenda when this is just another enemy he inherited, and like how it panders to those assholes who constantly try to discredit Obama, and for a million other reasons. I also hate seeing all those facebook statuses because I just don’t understand how that kind of mind works. Growing up Jewish, with social activist parents and grandparents, and growing up a Democrat, and growing up an intellectual, I am struck that people who respond to death in that way (again, this is colored by my privilege) are supremely ignorant and irrational. Nobody told me to be a pacifist when I was growing up, but the fact that I was raised to question and to research, the fact that I was required to perform volunteer work year round, and the fact that my parents talked to me about all manner of things and encouraged me to read about all manner of things, made me so. I’m not trying to de-legitimize the death of someone’s sibling who fought in Afghanistan, or anything like that, but to boil everything down to “It is because Osama bin Laden existed that my brother, Soldier X, is dead” shows, to me, an incredible lack of critical thinking and human compassion. Sure, that is exactly what it boils down to, but there’s a reason we don’t boil things down. If you boil your water for too long and it all boils off, your pasta burns and you’re left with nothing. If you boil events like this down to that level, you are missing an awful lot of complexities, responsibility on the part of many nations and groups, and cause and effect (i.e. how did bin Laden come to have the ideas he did? What is it about the culture and politics of the US that attract hate? What crimes have we ever committed in the name of religion? What are the social and cultural impetuses for hate crimes and terrorism?) I know I can’t see the whole picture, but I wish people would acknowledge that few of us can see the whole picture, rather than make broad generalizations and offensive statements because they don’t want to. Feel closure, sure. Be hopeful for peace ahead. But feel closure because of the possibility of less violence, not because a human is no longer living. We should never be happy that bad people are dead. We should be sorry for the circumstances that made them angry, violent people, and we should be sad about the damage they caused. But just as Obama reminded us that the best way to honor the memory of people like Christina Taylor Green is to try and make the world a better place, I don’t believe we should be happy that we’ve made a statement about killing people by killing someone else.

But I guess I’m just lucky to be able to say that.

Slightly edited in an attempt to be more clear.


6 thoughts on “post regarding the death of osama bin laden

  1. His death is a symbol. I was surprised when so many New Yorkers rallied up by Times Square and Wall street with American FLAGS, when our own PRESIDENT was on this “be ashamed to be American kick” for so long.

    My truth is that I love this country. My family gave up everything to come here. And yeah, there are a lot of sucky things, but there are even worse sucky things everywhere else. When it comes down to it, I’d rather be American than say French or Spanish (from Spain) or Bolivian or Cuban. (Except British, I’d like to be British, but only circa 1800.)

    The death of Osama is an important American symbol because he is a terrorist leader who lead this hatred of American life. And while it’s easy to say we’re not against Islam, radical ridiculous American-hating Islamic terrorist groups are at war with us.

    We got Hussein and we got Bin Laden. And they will be replaced, the same way Fidel replaced the president before him. But what I saw last night was hundreds of New York families, cops, firemen who lost a lot ten years ago, is get a sense of vindication and closure. I understood it, and I was glad.

    • And I can totally understand that. One of the things that kept me from fully appreciating the meaning of September 11 was my age, and another was not being a new Yorker, and there were plenty of other reasons, too, like the ones I wrote about in this post. I have no problem with people finding closure in this; I just have a problem with the idea that death itself can be celebrated. Does that make sense, or does it sound like I’m contradicting myself?

  2. I’ve never read your blog before, but I navigated here from the comment you left at Racialicious. Your comment caught my attention immediately because it resonated profoundly with my own feelings about the death of bin Laden and the associated celebrations. After watching the news last night, then seeing the images of celebrations on the news this morning, I was really troubled. Celebration felt instinctively wrong to me and incredibly distasteful. When I probed that discomfort a little more deeply, what I saw in myself was the privilege, the luxury, of exactly what you describe: the continuation of my life and my well-being do not require the death another. I think that’s why I went to Racialicious this morning. I was trying to find some resonance. So all I really have to say is thanks for writing your insights about this. I appreciate them. I’m going to keep reading for alternate perspectives of course, but everything you’ve outlined here feels spot on to me.

  3. I get that death isn’t a celebration. But it’s not our president who was killed. It’s a terrorist and a mass murderer. We don’t mourn when felons and killers get the death penalty. It’s BIN LADEN, not some common petty thief.

    • YOU don’t mourn. I consider it a loss when anyone is killed. I was a juror on a murder trial this year, so that gave me some new perspective, even though it wasn’t a death penalty case. And I don’t believe in the death penalty. I’m not saying that knowing that bin Laden cannot cause harm anymore isn’t a nice thought; my post was regarding people’s attitudes toward death.

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