On Monday, May 2, Anne and I started our morning, as we often do, with a brisk morning walk around Loose Park. On our way home we passed a Kansas City Star newspaper box and saw big bold black headline: “BIN LADEN DEAD.” I went home, showered, dressed, and got in my car to drive out to the church.
My car radio, as it often is, was set to one of the local sports talk radio stations. The radio personalities were playing audio from the Sunday night baseball game between the Mets and the Phillies in which fans had learned about Bin Laden’s death during the bottom of the ninth inning and had broken into chants of “USA! USA!” The sports talk radio personalities said something about how this brought us all together as Americans, that even people as polarized as Mets and Phillies fans could come together. I changed the station to NPR.
At church I logged onto Facebook and saw two comments by parishioners. One of our high school youth commented that it didn’t feel right to celebrate anyone’s death, even the death of someone who was responsible for murdering some 4,000 people. Another parishioner, who likes to post in Haiku, wrote, “Vengeance is mine, says / Some people’s Lord, but not mine / We sow love and peace.” The high school student was referring to his ambivalence, not about the death of Bin Laden, but about the type of response his death garnered. Likewise, my parishioner who wrote in Haiku was speaking more broadly, I believe. He was critiquing a worldview that equates justice with vengeance and retribution.
But here is my point. When I read these two posts I nodded and thought, “My parishioners get it. They are thinking about this big news event in ways that are reflective and thoughtful. They are doing good theology.” (Small sample size, I know.) And then, the next thought followed: I don’t feel any need to offer any comment on Bin Laden’s death.
My own impulse not to speak, not to make a declaration, not to offer commentary seems to stand in stark contrast to a media-infused world in which everyone seemingly feels compelled to offer their own “take” on the news. What does Bin Laden’s death mean for al-Qaeda and the future of terrorism? How did Obama handle this situation? What will it mean for Obama politically? How do we feel about those spontaneous celebratory gatherings in front of the White House and elsewhere?
And then, the reactions seemed to head in at least two different directions. First, conspiracy theorists began to question everything. What actually happened in Pakistan? What about the burial at sea? Can we get the long-form death certificate? Soon, the conspiracy theorists began to be drowned out by an impulse to collectively mass-remember September 11, 2001. People, when they gathered, began to talk about where they were and what they did and how they felt back in 2001. In some ways, this mass remembering was pre-emptive. This September will be the ten year anniversary of September 11, 2001 and preparations to remember had already begun.
Let me bracket this idea of collective remembrance and return to the question of whether I ought to say anything about Bin Laden’s death. Are my parishioners expecting me to say anything? Is there some aspect of this that they are deeply questioning or trying to make sense out of? Come Sunday, will those who join us for worship on Mother’s Day, long time parishioners and first time visitors alike, come expecting to hear something about Bin Laden’s death? I had really assumed not, but now I’m questioning that assumption because I hear from several ministers I know and love that they feel obligated to respond to Bin Laden’s death in some way in the worship service.
Since everyone else seems to want to editorialize – some in conversation, some in 140-character tweets, some in meandering blog posts – I reluctantly offer these thoughts. I offer them as a form of procrastination while I should be preparing my Mother’s Day sermon. And, I offer them as a way of clearing my throat, so to speak, because I really don’t plan to say much of anything about this on Sunday.
My best insight on the events of the past week is this. I’m quite struck by the narrative that has been created. The story begins with the September 11, 2001 attacks. The story goes on for a decade. The story reaches its climax with the raid on Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan and his death. The story ends with chanting, celebration, and remembrance. What began on September 11, 2001 is now ended. This chapter is closed.
I utterly reject this narrative. It didn’t start on 9/11/2001. Years earlier, Bin Laden had been responsible for hundreds of deaths in the bombings of embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. Bill Clinton had retaliated, launching cruise missile strikes against targets in Sudan and Afghanistan. And that isn’t really when “it” started either. I commend to you the brilliant and challenging BBC documentary from 2004, The Power of Nightmares, that traces the parallel rise of both Islamic terrorism and American neo-conservatism as political philosophies. The Power of Nightmares begins with the origins of both strains of thought as reactions against liberalizing modernism, connects their key players in the 1980s as they banded together to fight the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and then explains how each side has made the other.
However, if we must use the death of Bin Laden to bookend an era that supposedly started on September 11, 2001, I would suggest that it is most fitting to ask a question of this decade: What have we become?
What have we become?
We launched a war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and then lost focus on that war in order to launch a war against Iraq. With unclear and constantly changing objectives that might be described as Sisyphean or Quixotic, we spent hundreds of billions of dollars and devastated our economy, sacrificed the lives of thousands of members of the US military, brought back tens of thousands of soldiers suffering from bodily injuries and mental illnesses, and took the lives of countless civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though combat operations have ended in Iraq, we continue to maintain an expensive military presence there as the war in Afghanistan approaches the ten year mark.
We continue to detain people at Guantanamo Bay without any clear plan of what to do with them. As a nation we embraced torture as well as secret and indefinite detainment. Our government waterboarded and devised methods of psychological torture. We witnessed the shame of Abu Ghraib and Bagram. We outsourced torture.
We passed the US Patriot Act, spied on our own citizens, and created a surveillance society.
And, that is why I don’t particularly feel any inclination to chant or celebrate in the streets or sigh any sighs of relief or feel a sense of closure. I’m not shedding tears for Bin Laden. I’m soberly reflecting on the steep cost of all we’ve been through: the cost in lives, the cost in human suffering, the economic cost and who has had to and will have to bear that cost, the cost to our freedoms and liberties, and, of course, the moral cost and the cost to our humanity.
Not that I really feel as though I have much to say.