Bin Laden may be dead, but we are a country of revenge

May 5, 2011

activism / culture / politics

We all know that Osama bin Laden was killed by American forces the other day. We’ve seen the photos of Americans celebrating in New York and D.C. We’ve heard from people who have been waiting ten years for this event, and we’ve seen all the political posturing and basic ignoring of facts, and speculating on what kind of consequences the event will have. It’s all fascinating, in a way.

I’m somewhat interested in all of the political talk and questioning of international consequences to both our actions and our reactions to our actions, but I’m far more interested in what all of this (both the event, how it was announced, and how we have responded to it) says about us than I am in what it says about anyone else.

I learned about the event on Twitter, where there was a chorus of responses, and then watched Obama’s announcement. While watching it, I was struck (and added to the chorus of Twitter responses) that his definition of justice is deeply flawed if it can contain death, even death of an enemy. I was also struck by the irony that it may be this event, not the (deeply flawed, but valiant) attempts to bring universal healthcare to our country and keep us out of a depression, that will propel him to re-election.

Then, it hit me (not for the first time): we are a country of revenge.

In my lifetime, it is around revenge that our country has become united. 9/11 and it’s ridiculous aftermath. The lead-up to and early stages of the invasion of Iraq. And now the death of bin Laden. We don’t want justice. We want revenge, but we want to call it justice.

At some point that evening or the next morning, I saw this tweet:

Remember these words by Dr. Martin Luther King’ Jr. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Now, King used this quote a great deal, but he most often used it in defense of nonviolence. Besides that specific quote, it has been incredible for me to spend the last several months immersed in King’s actual words (books, speeches, articles, essays, etc.), in which he explains, on an in-depth level, his thoughts on justice, violence, and loving one’s enemies, among other things. This is often done while taking on American violence and militarism in ways that make it fairly clear that he wouldn’t see bin Laden’s death as justice, whatever else he may have thought of it.

No one calls out people who take him out of context like this, because it’s easier to pretend that King would like our desire for revenge. Instead, we call out folks for an (admittedly odd) meme on Twitter and Facebook that combined a quote of King’s with something else, even though the full quote fits quite well with the ways King thought. And that’s because it’s uncomfortable for us to think about our culture blatantly disagreeing with a figure who is, at this point in history that feels distant from his life, almost universally admired.

It’s easy to point this out about King, because we have such a large body of his work that we can turn to and say, “He’s writing about our culture when he says these things, and we haven’t changed.” It’s a bit harder, but still deeply necessary, to point this out about Jesus, as most Christians rejoice in bin Laden’s fate, assume that he’s in hell, and that it’s a good thing that we’ve murdered him so that he can’t hurt us anymore.

Jesus stands against this, asking us to love our enemies. The implications of this in a pluralistic, non-Christian society are myriad, and I’ll grant this, but it’s often Christians who are the loudest advocates for revenge and violence. It is to them that Jesus (along with Paul, when you read Romans 12 – speaking of the kingdom of God before 13 – contrasting it with the kingdoms of the world in which we live) speaks, and, I think, asks for resistance of the violence of the State. He’s not ignorant of the State when asking us to love our enemies, but nor does he expect us to allow it to tell us what justice is in treatment of those enemies. Justice cannot be defined by violence.

Revenge, and the violence associated with it, is an unkind master, aside from the obvious effects it has on our enemies. King was one who tried to encourage the State to realize these things in light of the teachings of Jesus and Gandhi’s methods of nonviolence. Revenge will not make our lives safer. In our case, it won’t fix anyone who was hurt by bin Laden, or anyone who was hurt by us in our pursuit of bin Laden. It will also not be satisfied, as it will not lead to the end of war in Afghanistan, and we will find other figureheads to whom we can attach our anger.

Finally, it won’t increase the freedom, or decrease the allure of Al-Qaeda, to folks in the Middle East. Once again, we can see the stark contrast between the way of nonviolence that Tunisians, Egyptians, and Syrians have pursued, the sacrifices they have made, the brutality they have endured to seek their freedom, compared to the violence we have used to push our agendas on their neighbors. These are messy situations, but the contrast is there and is deeply powerful.

Our violence, whether exemplified in foreign policy, specific acts of war, or torture and refusal to prosecute it (or, on the Right, the willingness to defend it), have given many folks a reason to radicalize against us. But nonviolent resistance, arising from within their countries, has begun to take away the desire for violence and oppression as a means to escape from violence and oppression.

We don’t know if it will work in bringing freedom to all of these countries, and if it does we don’t know what it will look like (thank God, for example, that Egypt doesn’t seem to be a pawn of America’s policy toward Israel), but it is beautiful, powerful, and it has just as much of a chance to work as our own strategies do without resorting to our methods. This is what should give us cause to rejoice.