Killing One Monster, Unleashing Another: Reflections on Revenge and Revelry

There is a particularly trenchant scene in the documentary film, Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead, in which Blecker — who teaches at New York Law School and is the nation’s most prominent pro-death penalty scholar — travels to Tennessee’s Riverbend Prison for the execution of convicted murderer, Daryl Holton. Blecker is adamant that Holton, who murdered his own children, deserves to die for his crime. Yet, when he gets to the prison on the evening of Holton’s electrocution, Blecker is disturbed not only by the anti-death penalty forces whom he views as dangerously naive, but also by those who have come to literally cheer the state-sponsored killing. He agrees with their ultimate position, but can’t understand why they feel the need to celebrate death, to party as a life is taken. The event is somber, he tries to tell them. Human life is precious, he insists; so precious, in Blecker’s mind, that occasionally we must take the lives of killers so as to reinforce that respect for human life. But there is no reason to revel in the death of another, he tries to explain. While I disagree with Blecker on the matter of the death penalty, I felt sympathy for him in that moment, trying to thread the needle between advocacy of killing — any killing — and the retention of the nuance that allows the supporter of such a thing to still preach about the sanctity of life. It was a nice attempt, and heartfelt.

Of course, his pleas for solemnity fall on deaf ears. His ideological compatriots cannot comprehend him. They even misunderstand his position on the ultimate issue, presuming at first that his unwillingness to cheer the death of one as evil as Holton means he must oppose the death penalty, and that he doesn’t care about the children Holton killed. Ultimately, Blecker walks away, clearly shaken, not in his support for capital punishment, but by the way in which others on his own side seem to literally glorify death, even need it.

I was reminded of this scene today, while watching coverage of the celebrations around the country (but especially in Washington D.C. and Manhattan), which began last night when it was announced that Osama bin Laden was dead. In front of the White House were thousands of affluent and overprivileged (and mostly white) college students from George Washington University (among the nation’s most expensive schools), partying like it was spring break. Never needing an excuse to binge drink, the GW and Georgetown collegians responded to the news of bin Laden’s death as though their team had just won the Final Four. That none of them would have had the guts to actually go and fight the war that they seem to support so vociferously — after all, a stint in the military might disrupt their plans to work on Wall Street, or to become high-powered lawyers, or just get in the way of their spring formal — matters not, one supposes. They have other people to do the hard work for them. They always have.

In New York, the throngs assembled may have been more economically diverse, but the revelry was similar. Lots of flags, chants of “U.S.A., U.S.A.,” and an overall “rah-rah” attitude akin to that which one might experience at a BCS Bowl game, and once again, mostly led by guys who would never, themselves, have gone to war, to get bin Laden or anyone else.

You have to wonder — or actually, you don’t because the answer is so distressingly obvious — would these throngs pour into the streets to celebrate in this fashion if it were announced that a cure for cancer had been discovered, or for AIDS? Would thousands of people be jumping up and down belting out patriotic chants if the president were to announce that our country’s scientists had found a new, affordable method for wiping out all childhood disease, malnutrition or malaria in poor countries around the world? Though these maladies kill far more than Osama bin Laden ever dreamt of slaughtering, and although any of these developments would be a source of intense pride for millions, there is almost no chance that they would be met with drunken revelry. Partying is what we do when we kill people, when we beat someone, when we grind them to dust. It is not what we do when we save lives or end suffering. Saving lives or doing humanitarianism is like making love, while killing people is tantamount to a good, hard, and largely one-sided fuck; and unfortunately we know which of these two things men, in particular, are more apt to prefer.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not a pacifist. I know there are times when violence may be necessary, either in self-defense, vicarious defense of others, or to prevent greater violence. If you were to break into my house and attempt to harm my family, let there be no misunderstanding: you would die, and I would kill you, without so much as a moment’s hesitation. But I would not, upon having taken your life (however justified), proceed to pop a cold one, invite friends over and dance around your bloody body. I would not be happy about what I had done. Taking a life, even when you have no choice, is no cause for joy. It is a grave and serious event; and it is utterly unnatural, such that militaries the world over have to dehumanize their enemies and work furiously to break down their soldiers’ natural human tendencies to not kill. The fact that violence may be necessary in certain cases, and even in the case of stopping bin Laden, cannot, in and of itself justify raucous celebrations of his death at the hands of the United States.

So yes, we can argue that bin Laden deserved to die. But that’s the easy part. Beyond what one deserves, whether they be terrorists or just street criminals, there is the matter of what society needs. And it may be that what a healthy society needs is less bombastic rhetoric, less celebratory embrace of violence, and less jingoistic nationalism, even if that means that we have to respond to the news of bin Laden’s death with a more muted tone, perhaps being thankful in private, or even drinking a toast with friends in our own homes, but not turning the matter into public spectacle, the likes of which cheapens matters of life and death to little more than a contest whose results can be tallied on a scoreboard.

It may prove cathartic that one the likes of bin Laden is dead. His death may provide an opportunity for a much-needed exhaling; but that doesn’t render it the proper subject of a pep rally. And given the larger need to challenge the mentality of disposability that is at the root of all murderous violence, it may be that in such moments we would be far better off to solemnly commemorate the death of the monster than to cheer it openly, when the latter is so likely to inflame passions on the part of those whose allegiance to the monster remained unsullied right to the end.

Ultimately, the mentality of human disposability that animates war, terrorism, gang violence and all forms of homicidal street crime, is a dangerous one to indulge, and certainly to indulge giddily. Such a mindset feeds upon itself, perpetuates itself without end, and serves to ratify the same in others. Surely we should strive to do better, even when, for various reasons, we can’t manage it, and are required to take life for one reason or another. Most soldiers, after all, are not happy or self-satisfied about the things they’ve done in war. For many, if not most, killing even when you have no choice, is life-changing. It scars. It comes back in the middle of the night, haunting the soldier’s dreams for years, and sometimes forever. We do not honor them or their sacrifices by treating the mortal decisions they so often have to make as if they were no more gut-wrenching than those made during the playing of a video game.

Perhaps the only thing more disturbing than the celebrations unleashed in the wake of bin Laden’s demise was the cynical way in which the president suggested that his killing proved “America can do whatever we set our mind to.” If this is, indeed, the lesson of bin Laden’s death, then this only suggests we clearly don’t want to diminish, let alone end, child poverty, excess mortality rates in communities of color, rape and sexual assault of women (including the many thousands who have been victimized in the U.S. military), or food insecurity for millions of families; because we aren’t addressing any of those things with nearly the aplomb as that put to warfare and the killing of our adversaries.

We are, if the president is serious here, a nation that has narrowly constricted its marketable talents to the deployment of violence. We can’t manufacture much of anything, but we can kill you. We can’t fix our schools, or build adequate levees to protect a city like New Orleans from floodwaters. But we can kill you. We can’t reduce infant mortality to anywhere near the level of other industrialized nations with which we like to compare ourselves. But we can kill you. We can’t break the power of Wall Street bankers, or jail any of those bankers and money managers who helped orchestrate the global financial collapse. But we can kill you. We can’t protect LGBT youth from bullying in schools, or ensure equal opportunity for all in the labor market, regardless of race, gender, sexuality or any other factor. But we can kill you. Booyah, bitches.

But somewhere, I suspect, there is a young child — maybe the age of one of my own — who is sitting in front of a television tonight in Karachi, or Riyadh. And he’s watching footage of some fraternity boy, American flag wrapped around his back, cheering the death of one who this child believes, for whatever fucked up reason, is a hero, and now, a martyr.

And I know that this child will likely do what all such children do; namely, forget almost nothing, remember almost everything, and plan for the day when he will make you remember it too, and when you will know his name. And if (or when) that day comes, the question will be, was your party worth it?

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