Celebrations After bin Laden's Death Went Too Far

American has rid the world stage of its worst player. That is a reason to lead, not to control.

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Osama bin Laden’s death--his assassination, to be accurate--understandably unleashes a series of emotions among Americans. There is relief, satisfaction, celebration, worry about retribution, and even some sense of disappointment that finally killing the man who had been Public Enemy Number One still doesn’t really give closure to everyone affected by the events of September 11. And "everyone," of course, is all of us, although some of us were tragically more personally affected by it than others.

What bin Laden’s death is not is a reason to reclaim American hegemony on the world stage. To those who asked the question after 9/11, "why do they hate us?"--this is partly why. It is not a justification for flying planes into the World Trade Center or engaging in violence of any sort. And the reason the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks hate the United States is not the same as the reason more reasonable people in the rest of the world get exasperated with us. They get frustrated and resentful because they got tired of feeling as though the United States had claimed some right to dominate the world, be it militarily, economically or culturally. It’s fair to note that some of the countries that resent American dominance have had no problem relying on the United States for its leadership and financial help to resolve international crises. But one can lead without dominating, without seeming to dictate terms to the rest of the world. [See photos of reactions to Osama bin Laden's death.]

So while all of us were glad to see bin Laden gone, there is still something distasteful about the jubilant cries of "USA! USA!" at gatherings to celebrate bin Laden’s demise. It looked as though the demonstrators had just witnessed the winning of the World Cup. Their fists pumped in the air, with understandable happiness and some relief, to be sure. But the image also looked creepily like some of the crazed anti-American demonstrations that have occurred around the world. [See a slide show of six potential terrorist targets.]

I was thrilled to learn of bin Laden’s death. As soon as I felt that emotion, I half expected to feel a backlash of shame, of some guilt over feeling so overjoyed at someone’s brutal demise. But I didn’t.

I don’t like violence. I don’t even like to see violent movies. I’m not a pure pacifist; I do believe there are times when only military action can prevent more death and violence. I hadn’t, before bin Laden, understood that I was capable of feeling nothing but pure happiness over the violent death of another human being. Most likely, that is because I find it hard to see bin Laden as a human being, since he could not be to me anything other than a vessel for hate and destruction and death. Moreover, I was especially pleased that bin Laden was killed by a bullet to the head. Had he been killed by an explosion or aerial attack, the result would have been the same. But I am especially satisfied that the last thing bin Laden likely saw was a U.S. solider with an American flag on his uniform, pointing his gun at the face of evil. [See a transcript of Obama's speech on bin Laden death.]

Still, some of the spontaneous demonstrations held after the news was released turned bin Laden’s death into something else. It is a relief, and tremendously satisfying, that he is gone. Perhaps the families of those killed will feel some sort of justice, however small one man’s death is compared to the thousands of deaths he is responsible for. But we should not use this welcome event as proof to the rest of the world that the United States is back in charge of the whole world. American has rid the world stage of its worst player. That is a reason to lead, not to control.

  • See photos of reactions to Osama bin Laden's death.
  • See a slide show of six potential terrorist targets.
  • See a transcript of Obama's speech on bin Laden death.
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