The assassination of Osama bin Laden has occasioned celebrations throughout the United States. Such celebrations of our enemy’s violent death erupted in Washington, D.C. and at Ground Zero in New York, complete with singing and flag-waving – a cathartic outburst of emotion by thousands. The celebrations are controversial because the majority of Americans consider themselves Christians, the faith of the Golden Rule. Christians are supposed to “love their enemies”, and “turn the other cheek” if struck by others. The bible says, “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord”.
Human beings are social creatures with a tribal nature. We evolved in tribes and we instinctively rally against threats from outside the tribe. We depend on others of our tribe for safety and collective success. The same spirit is embodied in athletic fandom. History is replete with tribal warfare, so it is natural to rejoice in victories. Indeed, the history of our own country is that of one war after another, including as we all know, the Civil War, surely the bloodiest and most tragic of them all. The Civil War pitted the CSA’s
agrarian, slavery-based culture against that of the industrial, religion-motivated abolitionist North. The echoes of that conflict reverberated strongly for a hundred years throughout the nation and peaked with the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960’s. But hard feelings are still alive in many places. For a striking view of the strength of such enduring cultural themes, or memes, I recommend the book, Sundown Towns, by Loewen.
I was just a boy during WWII, but I have some memories of the ethnic passions of that war. The Japanese were “Japs”, often depicted in patriotic poster art as small, ape-like ugly creatures. The Germans were “Krauts”, menacing cruel-faced figures festooned in swastikas. This was symbolic of the collective fear that transformed the United States almost overnight from an isolationist/pacifist culture into the military dynamo that almost failed but then decisively triumphed in 1945. The V-E (Europe) and V-J (Japan) Day victories were joyously celebrated in streets all over America, captured forever in iconic still and moving photography, even as the cities of our enemies lay in smoking ruins, their citizenry destitute. Few people then questioned expressions of unbridled joy over enemy deaths. Nationwide there were deep expressions of triumph, relief, pride and patriotism. That time was unprecedented and is now remembered with great nostalgia.
It is important to remember that the draconian reprisals of WWI against Germany were not repeated after WWII. We had learned something, and we instead installed the Marshall Plan to rescue Europe and fostered an enduring democracy in Japan. Those were unqualified successes of foresight and representative government, victory celebrations not withstanding. We did not allow celebration of victory then to overshadow what we stand for and I believe we will not do so now.
As in WWII, our celebrations will be short-lived. Terrorism is not defeated, the threat remains. But, collectively we have experienced a success against a common enemy and that appeals to our tribal nature even as it engenders some religiously inspired guilt. I submit that celebration of our enemy’s defeat is a natural expression of our human natures, tempered but never extinguished by sensible morality.
Recent studies have revealed something interesting about human behavior and motivation that may apply here. In “Out of Character”, authors Desteno and Valdesolo (USA Today, 5/3/11) report on a 7-year psychological study of vice and virtue in people. What they found is surprising, and those findings purport to explain how people can act at times so inconsistently with their otherwise predictable natures. Examples include Elliot Spitzer, Tiger Woods, and South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, all of whom famously strayed outside expected moral bounds.
Here is the way DeSteno described their findings in part. “Character isn’t set. There is inherent tension in the mind at both the unconscious and conscious levels between these desires for short-term goals and long-term goals. If you think about it not in terms of good and evil, but in terms of things that serve me well in the short-term or that can serve me well in the long run, then it’s balancing those two aspects that affect your character. That means any of us can act much more ‘out of character’ than we think.”
The celebrations of Osama bin Laden’s death are natural, and given the horror of 9/11, we are entitled to short-term feelings. If we now act “out of character”, we will soon revert to normal and our form of government will dampen impetuous emotion. Celebration is, I think, even now giving way to the pragmatic needs of government to dampen the passions of global tribalism. And if celebration leaves in its wake a renewed sense of patriotic unity throughout the country, a unity that will enable the fractious parties to deal with the financial crisis, then that would be an event even more worth celebrating.