Well, it’s been an exciting week and a half. On Mercy Sunday, we dispatched Osama bin Laden without mercy, and most people weren’t too broken up about that — including me. I’m a Just War kinda guy, and all the initial reports made it sound like we killed a knave in clean combat as he tried to hide behind the skirts of a woman. How could you not applaud that?
Of course, Catholics were, in general, properly conflicted about how to respond. As John Zmirak’s column eloquently articulates, most (American) Catholics came down somewhere in the neighborhood of cheering that justice was done, while trying to remember to pray for the old murderer in the spirit of “lead all souls to Heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy.” That’s about right as moral judgments go, it seems to me. A few were out at the ends of the demographic bell curve, either denouncing the killing of bin Laden or else fervently, seriously, and (to my mind) suicidally hoping for his damnation. But generally, most American Catholics struck the sensible balance of satisfaction and circumspect prayer and then were all for moving on.
Since then, however, various questions have arisen about the justice of the raid. In the absence of information, I’m not terribly inclined to fret about many of them at present. So, for instance, I’m not too inclined to worry about the violation of Pakistan’s precious sovereignty, since it does look rather like our dear friends there have been harboring bin Laden knowingly for years while taking billions of dollars in aid from us as they did so. The last country whose government harbored bin Laden was rightfully invaded by us and its government properly destroyed. If Pakistan gets off merely with a raid on their treasury to take back our billions, they should consider themselves lucky.
Other issues being raised include the question of whether this was a legitimate act of war or merely a political assassination. This, too, I’m not very inclined to judge harshly in the absence of facts. For the fact is, we hoi polloi know nothing of the circumstances on the ground that night, except that it was dark and our troops were going into terra incognita against unknown numbers with unknown weaponry. The goal was “get bin Laden and don’t get killed.” If (as current reports say) bin Laden offered even the slightest resistance, I have no problem with our troops killing him rather than standing around until he got a shot off or raised an alarm that brought jihadis running. One of our sons is worth a thousand of him, and in a combat situation, you have to think and act fast. Monday-morning quarterbacking from people who have not one inkling about the situation on the ground that night is, I think, ungrateful to the brave guys who got a difficult job done under trying circumstances.
So until I see documentation that bin Laden came out with his hands up, begging to be taken into custody, and that Obama ordered that he be lined up against the wall and shot, I’m not calling the killing of bin Laden an “assassination.” I’m calling it a legitimate act of war against the man who started that war.
Still, in the spirit of Tevye the Milkman’s “on the other hand,” all this does bring up another point: namely, that the reason we know extremely little about what happened is that we have no particular reason to trust our sole source of information about the operation: the Obama administration.
I suspect this is going to lead to a Tuscaloosa-magnitude tornado of conspiracy theorizing and distrust, some of it barking crazy (Obama killed bin Laden to cover up his fake birth certificate!) and some of it completely understandable — as, for instance, in this lament from a reader of my blog, griping about the shroud of suspicion again descending with the administration’s (in my opinion correct) decision not to release the photos of bin Laden’s corpse. My reader writes:
The problem stems from the ever-changing story. People expect facts to stay pretty constant, and what’s happened over the past few days goes well beyond minor corrections. It’s just that a lot of people simply don’t believe a single word that they’re hearing and want to see something objective (and all the more when photos of dead Americans are apparently okay). They don’t need to release them to the general public, but why not show them to, say, George W. Bush, Ron Paul, and a few other influential people of various affiliations. I think most people would be willing to accept the word of someone they trust in lieu of actually seeing it themselves. Or, at least, we can separate the sheep from the goats.
Understandable sentiment, but as the Zapruder film abundantly demonstrates, photos won’t fix the problem, because the problem goes much deeper. It’s not the problem of being unsure whether bin Laden is dead, as birther/deather kooks say. I mean, come on, both al-Qaeda and bin Laden’s own wife confirm it, and a host of evidence points to the fact. No, the real problem is that of the White House trying to construct a coherent narrative of how he was killed — based entirely on White House spin doctors massaging the message — without blackening the reputation of the Administration at home and the United States abroad.
The initial story was perfect and satisfied a deep need for closure for a people who have felt the open wound of 9/11 for a decade: A team of crack troops led by our gutsy and decisive Commander-in-Chief executed a brilliant “Mission Impossible” assault on a heavily guarded compound. The ruthless and cowardly James Bond supervillain grabbed his wife and a gun and used her as a human shield. Things looked grim for a moment, until one of our Finest got off a fantastic shot to the coward’s head that delivered maximum gore (for the imagination of the American who wanted him not just dead, but massively dead) and left the trembling, helpless woman safe and sound — and perhaps making her and all violent jihadis everywhere realize for the first time that her man was a pathetic monster and that there is a better way: the American Way.
Then, we seized the body and, using gleaming western Science beyond the ken of these Bronze Age savages, determined scientifically that Science proved it was scientifically clear that this was bin Laden. Finally, because we are a noble and good people who are magnanimous in victory, we gave even our worst enemy a burial according to his traditions, because our quarrel is with him and his radical ilk and not with all of Islam.
Now, the sacrifice having been offered and our president having addressed the nation to say, “It is finished,” we gather around our gutsy decisive Leader and, as a United States of America, celebrate our Us-ness through Him, with Him, and in Him, in the Unity of the American Spirit.
Establishing that message was, after all, the political purpose of Obama addressing the nation on May 1 and not just having any Talking Hairdo breaking the news. It was a political event calculated to acknowledge the troops but, most especially, to let our admiration of them and our satisfaction over nailing bin Laden serve to keep the focus where it belonged: on the Pol Who Made the Call.
Because of this politicized quasi-liturgical celebration of national communion in the American Spirit, everything in this narrative depends on the Purity of the Sacrifice and of the Political High Priest who offers it to achieve its main goal: namely, winning approval for himself. So controlling the message is everything. If it turns out that the whole “bin Laden hid behind a woman and was armed” thing is, well, false (as the White House has since acknowledged), then the flock naturally start wondering about the accuracy of the rest of the story. Some of the flock, already inclined to think Obama so untrustworthy that they can’t even believe he is an American citizen — despite massive evidence that he was born in Hawaii, as state records clearly show — quickly concluded that bin Laden is either a) not dead or b) that he died years ago, and the administration is concocting some massive fraud on a scale of faking the moon Landings.
These people are kooks for the simple reason that bin Laden is, in fact, dead, and he got that way on May 1. The administration can afford to marginalize these people as it can afford to marginalize birthers (often the same people). But it can’t afford to lose everybody’s trust. And that’s the real problem they face with the fluctuating accounts of the raid. For not everyone who has the sense that there is something hinky about the thing is so easily dismissible as a kook. Certain questions remain, which the shape-shifting narrative of the White House only invites, as my reader’s frustration demonstrates. For the basic question is not whether bin Laden was killed on May 1, but the manner of his death.
And that is something we hoi polloi simply have no information about, except through the shifting accounts of the White House. If it were to turn out, upon further investigation, that Obama ordered his troops to shoot bin Laden even though he was trying to surrender, then the proper term for that would be “murder” just as it was when our surrendering troops were gunned down at Malmedy (and we will have handed a large recruitment coup to al-Qaeda and related Islamic nutjobs, who will not be slow to exploit it). If it turns out that bin Laden offered resistance, then it will be marked down as perfectly legitimate battlefield tactics against the architect of the greatest mass slaughter of innocent Americans in our history.
However, we’ll never really know one way or another unless and until the complete background and audio and visual transcript of the operation (and the communications with the White House and military command structure) are released — which I highly doubt will happen.
So we are left with the shifting White House version(s) of events, as the White House attempts to manage the message and use it to rally the country around Our Great President and his Great Liturgy of American Justice — and with the natural tendency of the human mind to tell itself stories that suit its own desires, needs, beliefs, hopes, and fears in the absence of actual information. The letdown my reader and many others are feeling is the letdown of having the Purity of the Liturgy and the Sacrifice come into question as the White House Trumpet sounds an uncertain note, inviting even non-conspiracy theorist types to wonder: Did Obama engineer the death of a criminal mastermind who went down like a coward, or did he order our troops to kill an unarmed and unresisting man in cold blood? What’s the deal with the dodgy and changing narrative that forced Obama spokesman Jay Carney to admit: “Even I’m getting confused”? That’s what’s bugging my reader. It will bug lots of others — friend, foe, and fence-sitter — for quite some time.
Domestically, I think the psychological need for a Pure Sacrifice in the Liturgy of American Justice will overwhelm the question of how bin Laden was dispatched, whatever the facts turn out to be (assuming Obama ever permits access to those facts). Most people (and I am among them) do not feel a burning desire to do the legwork necessary to really establish if the Sacrifice was Pure and will content themselves that America killed the Bad Guy in a difficult and rapidly executed covert combat situation in which American lives were not lost — and that’s good enough. Trying to squeeze accurate information from the stone of the administration will seem like much more effort than it’s worth.
Meanwhile, in the immediate future, Obama’s efforts at focusing American unity on himself will fade the next time you have to put $70 into your gas tank, and we will be back to business as usual in our Disunited States. In the short run — meaning, “over the next couple of years” — somebody will nonetheless try to figure out the details of what happened on May 1 and, should they find actual rather than theoretical hinkiness, we will then be off and running with our American pastime of debating the morality of the fait accompli. In the very long run, what will be remembered is that Terrorism Doesn’t Pay and bin Laden will, quite properly, fade into American history as a byword for what happens to butchers who hurt innocents — till the next butcher emerges to carry on the fight.
But as far as our Ruling Classes go, the main thing is that the game will revolve around their exploiting bin Laden’s death to their advantage. Obama wasted no time on this and took great care to get that photo op with the troops, which will, in 2012, usefully remind us of the brilliance of Team Obama and of our manly warlike president who is in no way the liberal, pantywaist, bike-helmet wearer that those mean conservatives have been mocking for the last decade. Meanwhile, conservative strategists will be tasked with trying to figure out how to get themselves some of that electoral love for nailing bin Laden (of which more next week) while finding some way to continue portraying Obama as an incompetent wuss.
Bottom line: For our Ruling Classes, this entire event is about them and what they stand to gain from it politically. That’s why our vice president with the high IQ could immediately blab compromising information about our troops in one of his many fugues of garrulous and stupid braggadocio and, instead of winding up in jail for treason like Bradley Manning, remain a member in good standing of our Ruling Class, a heartbeat away from the presidency. The shifting messages my reader is lamenting are an indication of one basic fact: The goal of our Dear Leader and of our Dear Leader wannabes is to manage the message for their own maximum political benefit, not to inform you and me of truth, and emphatically not to treat us as citizens with rights equal to their own in these Disunited States of America.