May 2, 2011

Acting American

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When my roommate told me that bin Laden had been killed, I sprinted barefoot on pavement to the nearest T.V. and waited for the President’s address. Like Prof. David Patel suggested, Osama had been the bogeyman of my childhood, and this was a bit like hearing that Satan had been wrestled into submission by the Lake of Fire. It was worth some gravel in the soles of my feet. But shortly after President Obama’s speech, I couldn’t keep from asking what it meant.

I like there to be whooping and dancing in the streets, flags waving, the people uniting in song, a Roman triumph, a public display of evil’s mutilated body. I can appreciate a slain dragon and a toppled Philistine giant. But in this case, what I want as a classicist is undone by what I know as a modern man, which is that this dumb revelry is empty and undeserved. We are still in recession and damned by impossible debt. We have spent more lives, morale and national vigor in two embarrassing wars than we lost on Sept. 11 itself. Ten years later, this is a meaningless token. I’m sad to say I feel so cynical. I volunteered at the Red Cross on Sept. 11, and for a year I cried almost every time I saw that footage — but I was nine years old. That was a long time ago.

Osama bin Laden was not Sauron, or Voldemort, or even Hitler. Killing him is, like Spielberg’s Munich suggests, more analogous to clipping fingernails. The damage is done and will be done, no matter our symbolic achievements. I know, as most celebrants hopefully did, that the behavior of the University and the nation on May 1 was just what we are supposed to do when evil falls. This is, admittedly, coming from someone dubious of the reality of “nations” beyond some colors and a few hundred million complacent imaginations. Yet even with that disbelief suspended, I struggle to see the practical consequences.

It would be one thing if a real accomplishment had been concentrated into a face, as East German liberation took symbolic form in the Berlin Wall. There is nothing of substance behind this. I would guess with some certainty that bin Laden was functionally castrated.

Some may argue that amid an uncertain rebellion in Libya, natural catastrophes in Japan and the Southern U.S. and a world economically fucked-up-beyond-all-recognition, we need this modicum of good news, even with a concerted stretch of its significance. Still, I wonder whether we can justly claim that this is closure on a wound that we have salted for almost a decade.

It’s fair to ask what I’m suggesting we should have done instead. Should we have been silent, contemplative, sitting somber indoors? Obama struck exactly this tone, and I think he was inviting us to do the same. I know some who were injured in the attack, who have terminal lung cancer from working on Ground Zero or who watched hundreds of people instantly die in a fireball in Lower Manhattan. I know some for whom this was in fact justice served against the murderer of friends, relatives or parents.  I am suggesting that we be respectful and act with the knowledge that for thousands this was not an excuse to post an ironic Facebook status and drink to the victory of one archetype over another. Maybe our cartoonish reaction to this news is a direct result of its irrelevance. On some level, it did seem painfully anachronistic to see Obama talking about September 11.

For those directly affected, the scars are not healed. For us, they have worsened. Let us see this for what it is; let us act with the same dignity that we adopted after the tragedy 10 years ago; let us be, in the best way, Americans.

Elias Wynshaw is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at ebw53@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Elias Wynshaw