The Mark of Cain

“Though hatred is a convenient instrument for mobilizing a community for defense, it does not, in the long run, come cheap. We pay for it by losing all or many of the values we have set out to defend.” Eric Hoffer, The True Believer

How strange it is to realize that on a day filled with sweetness and light in one corner of the global village in another corner men are desperately fighting face to face, gun against fist. A man in a corner coffee shop sits down with a newspaper and a latte while far away another man starts in terror at the sound of gunfire and helicopters. One glances later at his watch and gathers his things to go, the other sees the light fading around him as he clutches the earth.

Osama bin Laden is dead, shot in the face by Navy SEALS and CIA agents in a daring raid deep inside Pakistan. America’s number one enemy, a man whose single-minded hatred for all things Western—and especially American—cost the lives of thousands and will continue to burn up lives for years to come. Here in Washington, DC, many people cheered at the news, danced outside the White House, and generally carried on as if their football team had spiked the division rivals in the Superbowl. The Daily Beast, heir to the remains of Newsweek, and current arbiter of What’s Happening Now, published a poll for the occasion which gave Obama no bounce at all for ordering Osama’s death. Details of the raid were predictably confusing but the public called for more. Many decried the decision of the White House not to release photos of the deceased and Sean Hannity huffed about the burial at sea of bin Laden’s body. If one looked closely in the evening sky at the end of that day the glowing contrails of a conspiracy theory could be seen drifting at high altitudes.

The raid was contrasted to the disastrous attempt of the Carter administration to spring the American hostages from Tehran and favorably compared to the Israeli raid on Entebbe to grab their own and split in a hail of gunfire without the loss of innocent life.  What a difference 10 years makes: American intelligence in the field concerning WMD and Saddam’s whereabouts back then could not be trusted. But this raid reveals an unusual patience on the part of the Americans, almost British in its willingness to gather details, observe patterns, slowly, slowly close the net, and then strike. So it is with relief but not celebration that this death can be understood. Of course, as common sense would dictate and some voices have already cautioned, this is not the end of Bush’s ‘War on Terror.’ As Churchill said, “It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

A ‘War on Terror’ might play well in a headline but it makes no sense on many levels. Can you imagine a war without terror? Do abstract concepts galvanize troops, launch Predators, fatten the wallets of the bomb merchants, and stiffen the spines of the weakest politicians? Yes, actually, they do. Words like ‘freedom,’ ‘the American way of life,’ ‘honor,’ and ‘sacrifice,’ are tossed around, hammered into steel and concrete, emblazoned on jackets, license plates, baseball caps, and T-shirts. We use them up, these words, drain the life out of them, freeze-dry them into slogans, and sprinkle them like fairy dust when the situation gets serious, just in case anyone should mistake victory for tragedy or object to living with delusions.

In a strikingly different context, Reynolds Price noted that, “Despite such a likably humane doctrine as what might be called the universality of the human heart in all times and places, it remains beyond doubt that human beings alive on the same day in the same city block—not to speak of different countries and centuries—will witness, reflect on, and respond to equal stimuli in ways as divergent as an infant’s and a leopard’s.” Thus, while some cheer at the death of a hated enemy others may take the occasion to think on the brevity of life, on the tenuous grasp we have on the weight and measure of our own times, and to regard with sorrow the ferocious drive within us to blot out our complicit guilt. “If there is one thing that the tragic wars of our time have taught us,” says Ernest Becker, “it is that the enemy has a ritual role to play, by means of which evil is redeemed.” And so it goes.

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