This is the first in a series of blog posts called "Readings." As a subscriber to 15 periodicals, I will share what I discover and maybe introduce you to a new author.
There's a news media phenomenon I call the “give-it-a-week syndrome.” The story on Sunday may become a very different story within a week. The death of Osama bin Laden is a classic example.
I flicked my TV on around midnight last Sunday to a foreign language news broadcast where the subtext seemed to say that Osama bin Laden was dead; but that was contradicted, I thought, by the video of hoards of young people screaming “U. S. A.” and yelling and waving American flags, as at a football game. Both were true. The bad guy was dead and college kids were dancing in the streets. He had died like a coward, but in battle, the report said, clutching his wife as a shield, shooting it out with heroic Navy Seals. The next morning the tabloids rejoiced. The New York Daily News shouted, “Rot in Hell!” on page 1 and ran that as a banner the rest of the week.
An email from a lawyer friend said: “I think it may become clear that there was a summary execution.”
That had been implied in President Obama’s announcement the night before, just from the way he emphasized the word “kill,” and the way administration spokesmen tacked on vague references to the dead man or his wife or son making “threatening gestures.” But soon we knew there was no “battle.” Our troops quickly killed a man and a woman on the first floor then started up the stairs. No more shots were fired. Bin Laden stood in his doorway, turned back into his room. Our troops entered the room. Bin Laden was unarmed, although reportedly a Seal saw a gun elsewhere in the room. They shot their target in the chest and head, blowing off part of his skull, scooped up the body, took pictures of the corpse, wrapped him and dumped him in the ocean from one of our ships.
This event, said the President, will unify America, proving we can do anything as a nation that we put our minds to. My list of other things we should put our minds to is long.
I have mixed emotions. I am relieved that Osama bin Laden was found. I am ashamed, as a former army officer and as a Catholic priest, that, under these circumstances, he was killed.
It is clear that we never had any intention of capturing him and putting him on trial. Eric Holder had said months ago that Osama bin Laden would never appear in an American courtroom. A trial, with all its requirements, would just be too much of a hassle. Borrow the morality of Tony Soprano: waste him. And no, we could not see his corpse; but we could see him Sunday, grey- bearded and foolish, in his rubbish-strewn room, clutching a remote, watching TV.
The Washington Post Style section fantasized on the physique of the Seal who fired the shot —age around 30, white, broad shoulders, thin waist, good abs, rough hands, positive thinker, and a battle wound somewhere on his body. Meanwhile, without evidence, the torturers from the Bush administration tried to connect the successful raid with their tortures inflicted years ago.
The editor of The Progressive said he rejoiced at the death of a mass murderer. Then he listed other mass murderers: Harry Truman at Hiroshima and Nagasaki; Ronald Reagan arming the contras in Nicaragua and the army in El Salvador; Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam. We had killed many more than bin Laden. We are against violence only when it is used against us.
On the other hand, say some psychologists, teenagers have lived under the threat of terrorism, heard of alerts, plots, and long lines at airports; and revenge is a natural response to “existential anxiety.” Another points out that this generation has been conditioned to view the world as a video game: dragon monster in a mountain castle to be slain before the game ends.
According to the Fordham Ram, a celebration which began jubilantly turned solemn with the reading of the names of students and alumni who died on Sept. 11, 2001, that “reverently remembered life instead of flaunting death.” Outside historic St. Paul’s Chapel at Ground Zero, where 9/11 victims were nursed, a 21-year-old music student held a sign quoting John Donne’s “Any man’s death diminishes me.” One passer-by called him a “moron,” and another simply said “@#$% you, idiot.” A Times letter writer bluntly said, “This mindless merriment, based on hatred, fear, and foolish indifference to the rage it inspires outside the United States, echoes the mindless viciousness of terrorists.”
I agree with my lawyer friends who say: This is not justice. Justice means arrest, fair trial, and punishment. Robert Fisk, the renowned British war correspondent who has interviewed bin Laden several times, says it best: “The real problem is that the West, which has constantly preached to the Arab world that legality and non-violence was the way forward in the Middle East, has taught a different lesson to the people of the region: that executing your opponents is perfectly acceptable.”
READINGS: The New York Times, Washington Post, New York Daily News, Slate, The Atlantic, The Progressive, The Independent, The Fordham Ram, Huffington Post, Tikkun, Information Clearing House, CNN, MSNBC, emails and conversation with students and alumni at Fordham and Boston College.
Raymond A. Schroth