The killing of Osama Bin Laden shook me to the core. I spent the week following his death hungrily reading both objective and subjective articles about the raid. After a good deal of reflection, I chose to respond to the event as a practicing Christian. Both the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury publicly expressed sentiments I could support, and I attempted to use the framework of religion to rest the case. I wrote my reflections down in this piece, http://brolls.blogspot.com/2011/05/take-my-hand.html, and tried to let go of my unease about Bin Laden’s death.
A few days after I posted that essay online, I called my sister.
“Hey, how are you Beth?”
“Yeah, I’m OK, but I’m still sort of reeling from the whole OBL thing.”
“Really? Did you write about it?”
“I did, but I still can’t seem to move past it. I’m just so upset because I campaigned for Obama, and then for him to go and do something like this… I mean, they didn’t have permission to enter Pakistan.”
“Do you honestly think they ever would have gotten permission?”
“Well, no, but still, it just seems wrong to me.”
“I think there’s something more to it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I think there’s something about safety. That’s what always gets to you. You’re always thinking about the bad things that can happen. Did you take it personally somehow?”
“I don’t know… I hadn’t thought about it… but I will. Thanks, Kay.”
“No problem. So how are the kids?”
I reopened the case. For starters, I needed to assess why the Christian framework alone had not sufficed. That came down to my skittishness around religion and responsibility. I feel that while religion can be a very positive force in peoples’ lives, it becomes dangerous when people accept religious teachings as the one and only answer. The Christian response was important, but it was not the whole story.
I was 17 when I moved abroad for the first time. I had fallen in love with a Swedish exchange student who came to my high school in Vermont during my senior year, and the year after my graduation I followed him to Sweden as an exchange student myself. We married in the U.S. when I was 23, and we moved to Sweden afterwards so Håkan could finish his degree in civil engineering.
The relationship of a citizen to a country resembles that of a child to a parent. The abstinence from war and the willingness to forego some amount of wealth in favour of meeting the basic needs of every individual made Sweden seem like a kindly grandmother to me. Sweden seemed to me to be much more caring towards its inhabitants than the United States was towards its citizens. No amount of support for Swedish ideology would take away my strong American accent though, or make me seem less unusual as “the American.” After many years of moving between Sweden and the United States, my husband and I eventually settled in London. The U.K. has occasionally been called a “nanny state,” and it certainly has far more social welfare legislation than the United States, although not nearly as much as Sweden.
If I had moved to North Carolina, or even California, my family would have seen my departure from New England as unfortunate, but just a couple of sentences would have provided adequate reasons for my family and for myself. Becoming an expatriate begs a more thorough explanation, at least on a personal level. The safety net in the U.S. had failed me as a child, so the tight weave of the Swedish safety net appealed to me. Months after I was born, my father left the U.S. to serve in the Air Force in Vietnam. His absence was the beginning of the end of my parents’ brief marriage, and his experiences in Vietnam left him with deep emotional scars that were noticeable but rarely discussed. I appreciated that Sweden had observed a policy of neutrality in armed conflicts since the early 19th century. During her years as a single mother, my mom had to work two jobs to make ends meet. Even doing that, there were often weeks during which we would eat soup for several days in a row. When I first lived in Sweden, I read once in a Swedish newspaper that you were considered to be living in poverty if you could not afford a daily newspaper and one week’s holiday abroad a year.
We are settled here in London. Our children are happy at school, my husband has a rewarding job, and I know where to buy the best tomatoes. I may well be deluded, but I feel that if, in a worst-case scenario, either of my children were to need the national safety net, they would at least not fall straight through. Yet part of me yearns to return to the U.S., to end my years as a cultural outsider, and most importantly to live closer to my family, whom I see all too infrequently. That part of me was thrilled by the entrance of Barack Obama onto the political stage.
When I was 13, I collected signatures of classmates who pledged to vote for me as President in 17 years (for reasons now forgotten I had decided that 30 would be an appropriate age to be when running for that office). Since then the extent of my political activity had been to vote Democratic in all state and national elections. Obama’s campaign promise to attempt to provide affordable health coverage for all Americans led me to campaign for a candidate for the first time. Obama seemed to want to make America a safer country, with more justice and greater equality for all of its citizens. I began calling voters in New Hampshire after our kids had gone to bed at night. I called voters for several months. I took my family to an Obama rally on London’s South Bank. Twice I spent over an hour on the Tube travelling in to the headquarters of Democrats Abroad where I spent at least two hours calling American voters in the U.K. to make sure they were registered properly to vote. I cried with joy and relief when I woke up in London and discovered that Obama had won the Presidency.
The week before the raid on Abbottabad, Obama had released his long-form birth certificate. This gesture was meant to silence the “birthers,” right-wing politicians and citizens who had for several weeks, if not months, been calling Obama’s nationality into question by claiming he had been born in Kenya rather than Hawaii and was thus not legally allowed to be president. I consider the “birther” movement a very thinly-disguised racial attack. I feel convinced that it must have riled Obama. Two days before the killing of Bin Laden, on the Friday that he gave the mission the go-ahead, Obama attended the White House correspondent’s dinner. This event is traditionally an opportunity for the president to try his hand at comedy. Obama chose to present several comic videos, and most of them had his nationality as their crux. Later in the dinner he criticised Donald Trump, one of the most outspoken “birthers,” directly. The whole week prior to Bin Laden’s death focussed on Obama being a red-blooded American, and what could be more American than ordering the taking of America’s most-wanted enemy? When I first heard the story of Bin Laden’s killing, my immediate reaction was that of deep disappointment in Obama, partly because the timing seemed so personal, but mostly because as the highest representative of the U.S., he had chosen to use violence to solve a problem.
I will readily admit that I have not done any real research on the phenomenon of violence, but as a lay-person it strikes me that in a great number of cases, violence is seen by the perpetrator as a solution. A father lacks the skills to discipline his child effectively, and in his frustration, he hits his child. A single mother working three jobs to make ends meet has a fourth baby. She sees no way out, so she loads her children into her car and drives off a bridge. A husband is so consumed by rage when he discovers his wife has been having an affair that he shoots and kills her, or her lover, or both of them. A state feels that certain criminals have committed crimes so heinous that they are beyond rehabilitation. The criminals are executed. A country is unable to solve a dispute over land through diplomacy and declares war.
According to Amnesty International, for the past twenty years, states that do allow the death penalty have had a significantly higher murder rate than states that don’t. I am proud to have grown up in Vermont, a state that essentially abolished the death penalty in 1964. A state that kills its citizens is showing the remaining citizens that in some cases death is an appropriate answer. A president that orders the execution of an enemy is also setting an example of violence as a solution. Finding out that Obama was that sort of president felt like having the wind knocked out of me.
I read an article in The New York Times written by Matt Gallagher, who had served in Iraq in 2008 (“The Hut Next Door,” http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/03/the-hut-next-door/?src=tptw). Gallagher wrote that he had frequently fantasized about killing Osama Bin Laden because Bin Laden was the “total enemy.” To kill him would be unambiguously right. Bin Laden committed horrific crimes against innocent people, and for all of his victims, the dead and the living, he deserved to be brought to justice. But I continue to maintain that to see any human as “the total enemy” and to rationalize their death is to step onto a slippery slope.
There is a man in my family tree who committed crimes against another member of my family that can only be described as evil. This man is far enough away from my siblings and me that his acts did not affect us directly. His crimes, however, had an unquestionable negative impact on my childhood due to the ripples down through the generations. The man was never called publicly to justice, and when he was called privately by his most obvious victim, he refused to accept responsibility or even apologize for what he had done. Many, many years have passed. In this man’s later years he changed. He began to devote large amounts of time to painting, and he gave away some of his work to family and friends. His paintings are careful, detailed, and calming. This man became an attentive husband to his wife, and with her, he visited other residents of his retirement village who were recovering from surgery or illness or who were often alone. I saw him once, when he had reached an advanced age, walking through the garden with the person in my family that he had harmed the most. They paused every few minutes to discuss the health of one plant, or the flowers of another.
A feeling of enormous relief combined with deep regret washed over me when I heard the news about Bin Laden’s death: relief that this man would never again commit such atrocious crimes against humanity, and regret that he had ever committed them at all. I found myself thinking of my relative. This man was dangerous only to those closest to him, but both he and Bin Laden serve as a reminder of the great brokenness of the world. I know that the damage done to humanity by Bin Laden is exponentially greater than the damage done to his family by the man I am related to, but I maintain that the principle is the same. I mourn for the victims living and dead of Osama’s crimes, but I maintain that he should have been tried in a court of law. I grieve for the losses caused by my relative, but I do not wish for him to be punished with violence.
I recognize also that one could consider Bin Laden the leader of the “army” of Al-Qaeda, and that Al-Qaeda had declared war on the United States. 9/11 could be seen as an invasion of the U.S. by Al-Qaeda, and even I do not expect citizens to submit to invasion by an aggressor peacefully. Yet there is some fundamental difference between the killing of Bin Laden and a more standard act of war such as D-Day. It has to do with the targeting of a single person and the idea that death is justice rather than trial in a court of law. I would have rejoiced if Bin Laden had been captured and brought to trial. We may never know what orders were given to the Navy Seals who carried out the raid, and I have no military training, but I can not help but think that the inhabitants of the house in Abbottabad were no match for the Seals and that Osama could have been captured as effectively as he was killed.
I have thought a great deal about what happened on the night of May 2nd 2011, and in the end, I think my sister was right. I am scared of something. I am scared of living in the United States. I thought Obama’s election may be the start of a new era for the U.S., an era in which the U.S. would take better care of its people and behave more responsibly in the arena of international politics. While I do believe that Obama is working towards greater equality and safety for American citizens domestically, his authorization of the raid, particularly in light of the political climate at the time, has made me question his desire for a new role for the U.S. internationally.
I am fooling myself if I think that the U.K. has the moral high ground in terms of international relations. The U.K. is not like Sweden; they have never been neutral and they participate actively in armed conflicts throughout the world. Yet they have at least a more substantial semblance of a safety net for their citizens (although that safety net is developing large holes under the current government), and they abolished the death penalty for murder in 1969, and capital punishment for high treason in 1999. I find it extremely doubtful that either of my children will grow up to commit crimes against humanity along the likes of Bin Laden. I hope that neither of my children will take after the man in my extended family by acting violently towards those close to them. But I know that life does not always unfold smoothly, and people make bad decisions, or end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. As long as the United States remains a country that condones violence as a solution both domestically and internationally I am grateful that I can make the choice to raise my children abroad.
I suspect that every emigrant develops a story that explains and rationalizes their departure from their homeland. There are many public figures who feel it necessary to criticize their country of birth, sometimes scathingly. I love the rolling low mountains of the state I grew up in. I find the American urge to believe that every individual should be offered a chance at self-fulfilment admirable. I know that there are large numbers of Americans that believe, as I do, that Osama Bin Laden should have been tried in a court of law. My increased squeamishness about the United States as a whole as a result of this event is not fully rational, but it is undeniable.
Now that I have peeled off this second layer of my reaction to the events of May 2nd, I feel I can close with a Christian prayer responsibly. So in the words of the prayer of St Francis of Assissi:
“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.”