In the aftermath of the death of Osama bin Laden, spontaneous rallies sprung up around the country, and crowds gathered to sing victory songs in front of the White House. I have been prompted to examine what it means to be a loyal American, and what it means to be an American, period.
We pride ourselves on being a nation of laws. I read the excellent biography of John Adams, our second president, by David McCullough. I shared in Adams’ pride in the accomplishments of his young nation. For him, the law that bound the young country together and existed as her foundation was a beautiful thing. It lent America dignity. It gave her gravitas. Laws of self-governance allowed her to sit composed at the table with older, established nations—and deal.
I think of that great patriot in Massachusetts during his autumnal years following his presidency, and I wonder how he would have received the news of the assassination of the most successful enemy of the United States.
Would he have been branded disloyal by his countrymen if he failed to burst out cheering?
Would he have been branded disloyal by his countrymen if he failed to burst out cheering? If, instead, he retreated to his study and ruminated grimly on the aftermath of 9/11, the path his nation followed, the trillions of dollars spent on the global War on Terror, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan? If he reflected, for a moment, on the thousands of lost lives, American and non-American alike?
What if, instead of celebrating the news, he sat in the darkness of his study, amid his books and papers, and considered that despite the news, the military occupations would continue unabated? That, further, the U.S. military presence in the Middle East—that had inflamed bin Laden’s anger in the ’80s and ’90s—was now dwarfed by two full-blown wars in Muslim countries, breeding new haters with each anti-terror tank, each anti-terror GI, each anti-terror home invasion.
Given this, would John Adams consider the day of bin Laden’s death a holiday, to be celebrated with fireworks like the Fourth of July, with children shouting “bang bang” as they fire double taps to our villain’s head?
How can the limbs of the warrior not weaken with each cast of his blood-drenched sword?
I imagine that tall, goofy bastard crouched behind an oil drum, ineptly returning fire into the darkness at the kill team deployed against him in the middle of the night, hearing the bodies of his guards falling around him, the irritating screams of women and children. He has known for 10 years that he has won, that he has been winning beyond his wildest dreams, that he has succeeded in drawing America into vast expenditures of her treasury, into the Patriot Act, into a holy war between Christian and Muslim. He has succeeded in increasing a hundredfold the anti-American sentiment throughout the Muslim world and in initiating a new age of distrust, paranoia and bloodshed.
If the women would just shut up, he thinks, he could reflect on this and die with dignity, knowing that he has won. “Shut up!” he bellows. Ducked down behind a concrete oil drum, down to his last magazine, he knows that his imminent death will be nothing more than an asterisk in time. He has already been dead for 10 years, hiding for 10 years, and it has not mattered. His actual death solves nothing, contributes nothing.
And this is why President Adams, sitting in the darkness of his study, does not rejoice but remains guarded and rueful at the news. He wonders at the path his nation has followed over the years. The preeminence of profit at all costs, the rise of the corporatocracy, the rise of the military-industrial complex and the steady emaciation of the middle class. He has seen that which he has loved grow sick. And he considers the legend of the Hydra, that beast from whose neck 10 heads emerge for every one cut.
How can the limbs of the warrior not weaken with each cast of his blood-drenched sword? How can the warrior continue fighting on behalf of a graceless nation, a sickened nation, a bankrupt nation? In the darkness, I sit with Adams and am still.