Friday, May 6, 2011

Us and Them and Justice

“U.S. Navy Seals Kill Osama bin Laden.”

That’s the headline, but what’s the story?

I can’t deny that I felt good about bin Laden being eliminated as a factor in the “Al Qaeda vs. World” contest. However, the circumstances of the killing forced so many questions to the surface that I also can’t deny that I harbor certain reservations.

In the starkest terms, it’s worth considering whether or not assassinations are a business with which we want to identify ourselves. This question becomes somewhat weightier given that bin Laden wasn’t holding a weapon when he was shot, and could, perhaps, have been captured rather than killed.

Still, I’m not going to direct accusations against men who are sent on a very dangerous mission in which their own deaths are distinct possibilities, and ask them why they couldn’t have been more formal and polite as the bullets were flying.

And finally, the kicker: Bin Laden was a ruthless killer, and one who was nauseatingly self-righteous about his justifications for mass murder. Some people have said this description also applies to President George W. Bush, but that discussion leads to complications that I’d rather leave aside, at least for now.

But I could have done without the celebratory dancing in the street that followed the announcement of the assassination.

The New York Times cited a couple of citizens with conflicted feelings that the celebrations brought out.

“Some Americans celebrated the killing of Osama bin Laden loudly, with chanting and frat-party revelry in the streets. Others were appalled — not by the killing, but by the celebrations.

‘It was appropriate to go after Bin Laden, just to try to cut the head off that serpent, but I don’t think it’s decent to celebrate a killing like that,’ said George Horwitz, a retired meat cutter and Army veteran in Bynum, N.C.”

First of all, I was surprised that an Army veteran, a meat cutter and a southerner would think along these lines. Good on you, Mr. Bynum.

But obviously, lots of people were more single-minded in their reactions. Many of those celebrating on the street were young, which is understandable, given that oldsters do not spend a lot of late night time out on the streets. But another division I would anticipate is political.

My guess is that the more conservative an individual is, the more likely he or she would be to celebrate that death of bin Laden without reservation. And this is only a guess, since I have no data to work with here; but really, doesn’t it sound right?

There’s a reason for this, and it comes to us from CultureWorld’s Department of Oversimplification: Conservatives tend to emphasize loyalty over justice, liberals tend to do the opposite.

In other words, when “our guys” do something grossly unjust (e.g., My Lai, Abu Ghraib), conservatives often leap to their defense because they are “our guys.” Liberals are much more likely to want to see the perpetrators brought to justice because, even though they are “our guys,” what they did was a monstrous violation of justice.

I would argue that a lot of the political differences that separate left from right (for instance, on tax rates, social security, affirmative action, separation of church and state) can be interpreted in light of the differential emphasis given to these two basic values.

It’s interesting that America’s enemies today-- Al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Iranian mullahs -- are fundamentally conservative. Yet it is American conservatives who are most likely to want to hit them with violent and aggressive blows. So, while conservatives celebrate actions like that which killed (their fellow conservative!) bin Laden, liberals are much more likely to say, “Yes, but…” and then raise issues relating to fair play and universal standards of justice.

I invite one and all to sort that contradiction out and make sense of it right here and now.

Oh yeah, and I am glad he’s gone.