“I think the human race needs to think more about killing. How much evil must we do in order to do good?” – Robert McNamara in The Fog of War
A few days ago I was listening to stand-up comedy on my iPhone as I worked in the library in an attempt to cheer myself up. I had downloaded a large collection of stand up recordings and was listening to one by Carlos Mencia entitled “America Rules.” It was recorded shortly after 9/11 and was filled with racism, Islamophobia and hatred. I remember watching this stand-up after 9/11 when it came up and enjoying it back then. However, listening to it now it just sounded incredibly hateful.
This turned me inward and I continued to reflect on the fact that lately I have older. A lot older. While it has only been ten years since I was a senior in high school it feels like fifteen. I thought about how much I had changed and how much has happened in my life and the world since I was a seventeen year old finishing up high school.
Then last night, at a friend’s birthday party, a news broadcast began that silenced the entire room. President Obama announced the killing of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan by U.S. JSOC forces working with the CIA, in cooperation with Pakistani intelligence. The news also began reporting the fact that U.S. citizens had taken to the streets in celebration at his death, and I could not help but linking this public celebration with the celebration of those in Middle Eastern countries after the death of U.S. citizens in 9/11.
As Obama announced the news he invoked the fact that we were attacked on our soil, made it clear that we were careful to not to harm civilians, did this in cooperation with Pakistan, reinforced the fact that this was not part of a war on Islam but part of the war against terror, before finally invoking the blessings of God on our nation.
Almost immediately the room was abuzz with conversation. Most in the room were my peers who had come into adulthood in a post-9/11 world. The staccato sound of people hitting the pavement after they jumped out of the Twin Towers to avoid a fiery death was the sound of the real world knocking on the door of our comfortable suburban lives, waking us up to global realities that were far uglier than we would like to acknowledge.
*splat* Wake *splat* the fuck *splat* up!
I fear that many have chosen to bury their heads in the sand and go deeper into denial, nationalism, and civil religion. They attempt to pretend we live in a more morally unambiguous world stage, like that of the Greatest Generation during WWII. We are the “Good Guys” who bring justice into the world by fighting the “Bad Guys” that have wronged us or the world. The use of “Axis of Evil” language during the Bush administration was an attempt to encourage this.
However, some of us did start to wake up. Our coming of age, seeded by 9/11, has been watered by future events. The invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq has left no shortage of atrocities to try and wrap our heads around. The beheading of Nick Berg, the Abu Ghraib scandal, more terrorists attacks and surgical strikes launched by Predator drones that may or may not kill the right people (and only the right people) have become so commonplace they pass without real notice. We are also the internet generation, instantly aware of all of the horrible things that happen in this world. Unlike previous generations, we can see the horrors of war even though we are a world away almost in real time. We can watch gun-camera footage from U.S. helicopters as they killed real-people with a 30mm chain gun on Youtube. The mission to kill Osama was tweeted.
We are all older.
Much that night was said about justice, vengeance, killing, U.S. foreign policy, and so forth. I am sure debates will rage and questions will be asked in the coming weeks sparked by this announcement.
For me, Obama’s announcement was an unsatisfying bookend that closed off what was started for me with another news broadcast that I had watched in my childhood home in Modesto.
On September 11th of 2001 I was brushing my teeth and through the eerie silence of the morning I heard snippets of news reports from my mother’s room. Wait…a plane did what? I slowly walked into my mother’s room and was later joined by my two siblings. No one said a word. Eventually we all left and went back to getting ready for school. My high school received a bomb threat that day and everyone was sent home. No one in their right mind thought planes would be flown into towers on American soil until that morning so a bomb at a high school in Modesto was no longer that far-fetched. I remember the chaos of 3,000 high school students being abruptly sent home amidst very real fear. It was our own slice of what was happening on the East Coast.
In the coming weeks, like many around me, I was filled with a nationalistic fervor and a desire for revenge. Not only had we been attacked on our soil, but the victims were innocents who were just traveling around the U.S. or working their day jobs. Three thousand people had been killed by a plot hatched by a terrorist. I watched news broadcasts of people in Middle Eastern countries celebrating in the streets at the sudden murder of thousands of U.S. citizens. How could they rejoice at the death of innocents who had done nothing to them?
One would think that given this starting point the news of finally killing Osama bin Laden would be recieved by me, and others, with more joy, but all I felt was conflicted and unsatisfied. On one hand I am not sad that someone who had caused so much harm had received his due in this life, but on the other hand it was unsatisfying to me because I’ve thought a lot more about war, killing and the world since I was a seventeen year old kid.
If the seventeen year old Kevin heard this broadcast I would have easily been one of the people celebrating in the streets, if not secretly lusting after being one of the special forces team that was sent after him. I believed the very simple narrative that was encouraged at that time: Osama, a terrorist who hated the U.S. for just being the U.S., had killed 3,000 innocent U.S. citizens and deserved to die. We were justified in invading any country that harbored him and our pursuit of him was a just cause.
But then I lived for four years in Canada. The invasion of Iraq happened while I was studying in Canada and I felt compelled to to defend U.S. foreign policy to the Canadians who spoke against it. I found, to my surprise, that much of what the U.S. does and has done throughout history was not really defensible, was primarily driven by national self interest, and at times was in direct opposition to scripture. My civil religion began to die in British Columbia. I started being truly critical of U.S. politics and began leaving the orbit of conservative evangelicalism, which often just ends up being an extension of U.S. politics.
Then the continued cost of the war on terror, which has included two wars, billions of dollars, and thousands of deaths on all sides, forced me to begin asking questions that eroded the simple nationalist narrative I had believed and my equations about the justice inherent in killing. We had lost 3,000 on 9/11 but how many more had we lost and had we killed since then? If Osama deserved to die for orchestrating the death of 3,000, were we not responsible for those we killed in our quest for justice? How many innocents had the U.S. killed in the pursuit of our global agenda? How much of 9/11 was a response to our previous behavior on the world stage? How much anti-American sentiment and hatred, which feeds terrorism, had we fueled up in our attempt to fight terrorism?
Then I I began to examine the history that the U.S. has had with Osama bin Laden and other foreign policy decisions we have made over the years. The C.I.A. trained Osama as part of Operation Cyclone to fight the U.S.S.R. in Afghanistan without going to open war with the U.S.S.R. This is right in line with a rather long list of times where the United States has used other people as pawns to protect our national interests. We have made deals with rebel movements and dictators with all kinds of religious and ideological agendas in pursuit of our goals. We have made formal and handshake agreements with people like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gadaffi – ignoring their human rights violations as long as th oil flows – and then suddenly grow a conscience when it suits us.
The human cost of war has also become increasingly real as while thankfully all of my friends who went into the service have come back, often they have done so with severe emotional and physical scars. I will also not forget the panic my family went through when a sailor, with the same job description as my cousin, died on my cousin’s ship but they would not release the name until the family was notified. I wonder how many Iraqi and Afghani families have known that very same panic because of our decisions before and after 9/11.
Most importantly I have been encouraged to examine the nature of killing, the reasons we do it, and the reasons we feel it is justified. Robert McNamara, the architect of the Vietnam War, was interviewed for a movie called The Fog of War. This movie made me really re-think my understanding of war and killing. It made me ask difficult questions of myself. Why was I, during the days that I wanted to join the military, so comfortable with killing others at the request of the state? How had I become comfortable, as a person, with the concept of killing others so callously? How had I become comfortable, as a Christian, with the concept of killing others so callously?
This side of everything the announcement of Osama’s death seemed to be far less satisfying than I would have though because in the last ten years I have died to a lot of my nationalism and thought a lot more about killing.
Overall, Obama’s speech seemed counter-productive to truly defeating terrorism. Obama painted the U.S. as an innocent and righteous country that had justifiably pursued and finally completely an act of punishment that was rightly deserved by Osama. I believe this was an attempt to vindicate and justify all that our war on terror has cost us and the rest of the world. It was a return to and reinforcement of the simple nationalistic narrative, a narrative that leads us to one conclusion: when bad guys kill innocents, all we have to do is just kill the bad guys. However, in the confusing world we live in today, who really are the bad guys and who are the innocents? To the innocent Iraqi and Afgahni civilians who have lost loved ones, homes, parts of their bodies or their lives, aren’t we seen as the “Bad Guys” and understandably so?
Where this simple narrative and this nationalism is enforced and believed we will just continue to feed terrorism and never make actual progress in our attempts to dismantle terrorism. Terrorists do not hate us without reason. They did not just throw a dart on the map and decide to hate our country so much that they would be willing to kill themselves if it meant taking some of us with them. To truly defeat terrorism we need to examine the roots of terrorism. Most of the time these roots point back to U.S. foreign policy decisions. Where we use the Osama’s of this world as scapegoats, where we swallow the simple narrative and continue to bury our heads in the sand, we will never change our foreign policy which is the best (only?) way to truly defeat terrorism. I fear if we continue to provoke and seed terrorism and then proclaim innocence our children will undoubtedly be forced to fight the monsters we have had a hand in creating.