I will never forget a conversation I had with two Muslim Americans in the wake of 9/11 — one black and one a second-generation immigrant. A quiet but insistent theme was that bin Laden's action was not completely unreasonable. A quiet theme, mind you — both often contributed that what bin Laden had done was "awful." But they said it as if they were describing somebody's basement getting flooded, rather than the murder of 3,000 innocent people.
It was clear, from things not quite said, from aspects of intonation and gaze, that both of them thought bin Laden had made a valuable statement of some kind. I frankly found this — quietly, mind you — parochial. For my taste, there was too little genuine engagement with the horror of what the victims had suffered, not to mention their families. These two were moved by the event as a show, an image, a gesture — even though there was no sign that 9/11 was going to make life better for Muslims in any way.
Then there was the professor I knew who thought we should turn the other cheek to terrorist attacks. Again, I wondered whether this view was more about him than about America or anything larger.
Perhaps he would have wangled the mental equipoise to insist that we should engage in no military response against al-Qaida as he cradled his mother's corpse in the smoking ruins of an Amtrak bombing. But I find it difficult to avoid the suspicion that he would not have. It surely felt really, really good to urge America not to defend itself militarily against an enemy that explicitly said more attacks were coming. But how compassionate was it in any real way?
Or, as time went by, there was the tendency for this person and others of similar mind to refer to bin Laden as a "madman" despite his always seeming perfectly sane, whereas they assumed that Dick Cheney was simply evil. The madman designation rather neatly absolved bin Laden from true responsibility for his actions, as if it would have been somehow uncharitable to despise bin Laden with the open contempt that many held for Cheney.
Relevant was one answer I got, when I asked at an NPR forum why Cheney was more despicable than bin Laden: "Because Cheney should know better." That was from a white male. Well, what was it about bin Laden, precisely, that kept him from "knowing better"? What quality of his, distinguishing him from Cheney, was the factor in question?
Was the idea that one was supposed to be more tolerant of the errors of brown people? This white male surely considered himself well aware of the value of people different from himself — but was he? He seemed to me to be taking his critique of America to the point of infantilizing those opposed to it. It was mostly about him — parochial, again.
And this week, I see more parochialism in the public celebrations of bin Laden's death. Now, this time, I openly admit that I have the parochial feeling myself. I am well aware that al-Qaida will live on, but I feel a visceral sense of pleasure in bin Laden's having gotten offed. I have loathed him for what he did with the same unadulterated bile that many felt for George W. Bush. I find what happened on 9/11 to be a triumph of self-glorifying smallness justified in the name of something larger.
But I process that with guilt. As I finish a semester of teaching Western civilization, it reminds me of Nietzsche's idea that punishment originated as — and remains driven at heart by — a primitive desire to make people suffer to the extent that the injured did. A part of us, Nietzsche wrote, enjoys watching suffering.
Think of how many men like shoot-em-up movies. "Ooohhh," they grunt joyously, watching some man get shot before taking another swig of beer.
That — the primal delight we took in the stuff Dirty Harry did — is the emotion behind the Times Square festivities the other night and all other events where people toast the death of Osama bin Laden, as if the elimination of a human being is ever something to celebrate. Note: I certainly understand family members of the 9/11 victims enjoying that there has been retribution. I refer to the rest of us.
We, too, feel a sense of closure. We can't help it. But the America we should want to be should temper and deflect any sense of joy in bin Laden's having been put to death — specifically, by refraining from public celebrations, real or virtual, of what was, after all, the killing of a human being.
Are we, as Americans, people who publicly present ourselves as delighting in a death? Are we not, if so, much more akin than we have suspected to those who were cheering in the streets after 9/11?
The thought of bin Laden as "making a statement" should have been, in my view, kept at home, as should have been any puckish notion of America nobly abjuring the basic instinct of self-preservation by possibly enduring repeated attacks. In the same way, I will experience my joy at bin Laden's death as a private sentiment best gotten past as quickly as possible — and all lusty, communal "Ding dong, the witch is dead" celebrations of his death as unfortunate.
John McWhorter is a regular contributor to The Root.
John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The Root. He is an associate professor at Columbia University and the author of several books, including Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America and Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.