A remaining realm of American excellence

National celebrations regularly erupt over the latest corpse produced by the government, but little else

Published October 22, 2011 9:29AM (EDT)

(updated below)

When President Obama announced the killing of Osama bin Laden on the evening of May 1, he said something which I found so striking at the time and still do: "tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history." That sentiment of national pride had in the past been triggered by putting a man on the moon, or discovering cures for diseases, or creating technology that improved the lives of millions, or transforming the Great Depression into a thriving middle class, or correcting America's own entrenched injustices. Yet here was President Obama proclaiming that what should now cause us to be "reminded" of our national greatness was our ability to hunt someone down, pump bullets into his skull, and then dump his corpse into the ocean. And indeed, outside the White House and elsewhere, hordes of Americans were soon raucously celebrating the killing with "USA! USA!" chants as though their sports team had just won a major championship.

As I wrote on the morning after bin Laden's death, this gleeful reaction was understandable given the slaughter Americans witnessed on 9/11. But there was still something notable, and troubling, about this episode. Such a rare display of unified, chest-beating national celebration is now possible only when the government produces a corpse for us to dance over. Some suggested at the time that Osama bin Laden was sui generis and that no lessons could or should be drawn from his killing; for that reason, even many people who are generally uncomfortable with such acts proudly celebrated his death as the elimination of a singular evil. But it seems clear that the bin Laden episode was no aberration, no exception: the American citizenry rarely finds cause to exude nationalistic pride except when the government succeeds in ending someone's life.

Since the bin Laden killing, we have witnessed a similar joyous reaction when the U.S. assassinated its own citizen, Anwar Awlaki (along with another American dubiously claimed to be "collateral damage") -- even though Awlaki was never indicted as a Terrorist, charged with treason, or accorded any due process, and even though the government never showed the public any evidence supporting its accusations. Instead, Obama officials, with no evidence offered, simply declared him to be a Bad Terrorist, and that was all that was needed: hordes of his fellow Americans did not merely approve -- but cheered -- the news that a drone had found and killed him.

Identically, both before and after the Awlaki killing, Americans have routinely celebrated the drone-deaths of hundreds of individuals about whom they knew nothing other than the fact that the Terrorist label had been applied to them by the U.S. Government. It's as though there is a belief that American missiles do not detonate unless they hit an actual Terrorist.

And now the graphic photo of the corpse of Moammar Gaddafi is once again sparking outbursts of American pride -- despite the fact that he was captured alive and very well may have been summarily executed.  As I wrote previously, "no decent human being would possibly harbor any sympathy for Gadaffi, just as none harbored any for Saddam." And it's understandable that Libyans who suffered for four decades under his rule (like Americans after 9/11 or Muslims after years of violence and aggression in their countries) would be eager for vengeance. Nonetheless, and regardless of what one thinks about Gadaffi or the intervention, summarily shooting a helpless detainee in the head is one of the most barbaric acts imaginable -- under all circumstances -- but Gadaffi's gruesome death nonetheless sparked waves of American jubilation and decrees of self-vindication this week.

It is difficult to articulate exactly why, but there is something very significant about a nation that so continuously finds purpose and joy in the corpses its government produces, while finding it in so little else. During the Bush years, I frequently wrote about how repetitive, endless fear-mongering over Terrorism and the authoritarian radicalism justified in its name was changing -- infecting and degrading -- not just America's policies but its national character.  Among other things, this constant fixation on alleged threats produces the mindset that once the government decrees someone to be a Bad Guy, then anything and everything done to them (or ostensibly done to stop them) is not merely justified but is cause for celebration. That was the mentality that justified renditions, Guantanamo, vast illegal domestic surveillance, aggressive war against Iraq, and the worldwide torture regime: unless you support the Terrorists and Saddam, how could you oppose any of that?

That character-degradation is produced at least as much by conditioning the citizenry to stand and cheer, to beat its chest, to feel righteous and proud, each time the government produces a new dead Bad Guy. Even at its most necessary and justified, the act of ending a human life with state violence should be a somber and lamentable affair. There's something bloodthirsty about reacting ecstatically. To react that way when guilt is unproven (Awlaki), or when the person is unknown (most drone victims), or is killed by acts of pure barbarism (Gadaffi) is the mind of a savage.  But it's now been more than a decade since 9/11, and this has been the prevailing mentality in America continuously since then (to say nothing about the lengthy, brutal wars fought before that). What happens to a citizenry and a nation that so frequently erupts into celebratory dances over the latest dead body its government displays?

* * * * *

What simultaneously explains this and makes it all the more significant (and all the more damaging) is that the citizenry has almost no other cause to engage in political celebration, nationalistic pride or collective moral purpose. There is a widespread perception for the first time ever that America is a nation in decline. Faith in the country's leading institutions and political figures is shockingly (though appropriately) low. The country is plagued by mass sustained joblessness, oceans of debt, loss of entire industries, a disappearing middle class, exploding wealth inequality, declining class mobility, and a deeply corrupted political system that now resembles an oligarchy far more than a democracy. For many, the shame of the Iraq War, Abu Ghraib and the torture regime endure. Everyone desires something to celebrate, to feel good about, and the country's political organs can now offer little more than Bad Guy corpses to enable those feelings.

Putting bullets into people's skulls and exploding them into little bits and pieces by sky robots is one of the very few things at which America still seems to excel. So that's what the political class feeds to the population to keep them convinced of the country's exceptionalism and righteousness. But that's a toxic diet, one that can produce some short-term satisfaction but unquestionably spawns long-term disease.

What's perhaps most revealing about these death-celebrations are how reflexive -- how visceral -- they have become. For a President to claim the power to target his own citizens for death -- and to do so in total secrecy, with no rules or oversight -- is literally one of the most radical powers that a political leader can seize. The Fifth Amendment's guarantee of "due process" was intended to prohibit exactly that, as was the Constitution's heightened requirements for proving "Treason" in a court of law. Had George Bush seized this power, it would have led the list of progressive "shredding-the-Constitution" grievances against him. But all of that was washed away in the celebrations over Awlaki's death, drowned out by the blind ritualistic war cry of He was Bad and so I'm glad he's dead!

Or consider the ecstacy (and playfulness) over Gadaffi's death. This was someone who ruled a tiny country for 4 decades. He was a repellent tyrant, but certainly no worse than dozens of others -- not on the level of Saddam, or the Assads in Syria. Other than Ronald Reagan's attempt 25 years ago to kill him, nobody cared about Gadaffi one way or the other, as Jamie Omar Yassin pointed out. To the contrary, the West had all sorts of cooperative agreements with him over oil and weapons. There was no clamoring for action against him. But the minute the U.S. Government targeted him for death and his corpse was produced, many Americans reacted as though he were the living, breathing incarnation of Adolf Hitler, that basic morality was simply inconsistent with allowing him to live any longer -- the same person the U.S. worked with in all sorts of ways for years and years. There's a psychological and emotional benefit -- a big one -- in celebrating your country's killing of Bad Guys, and that produces an eagerness to grab it and a corresponding unwillingness to hear objections or concerns that would dilute the joy.

So visceral was this reaction that anyone raising questions about what happened -- was Gadaffi tortured and/or summarily executed after surrendering? -- was, as usual, castigated as a party-pooping tyrant-lover fixated on dreary, irrelevant questions at the expense of righteous retribution (similar to how those who objected to torture and indefinite detention were accused of being "pro-Terrorist," those who objected to the attack on Iraq were "pro-Saddam," and those who wondered about the circumstances of bin Laden's death or objected to the government's falsehoods were told, literally, to "shut up and move on"). These killings unleash waves of intense emotional satisfaction (and gratitude toward the military and political leadership) -- they're basically the climax scene of morality plays or, more modernly, adventure films -- which easily trample whiny concerns about precedent, legality, morality, or factual accuracy from annoying scolds trying to ruin the fun.

There is also much to be revealed in what receives lavish attention and what does not. Gadaffi wasn't the only corpse produced this week. He was joined by the 16-year-old American son of Anwar Awlaki and his 17-year-old cousin, killed when one of Obama's drones attacked them in Yemen. That incident -- like the many children killed by the U.S.'s 2009 cluster bomb attack in the same country, and all the children killed by checkpoint shootings and air strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the still-unknown death count from NATO's bombing of Libya -- is almost completely ignored. That's because those deaths don't provide the pulsating sense of moral uplift, power and righteousness which killing Bad Guys does. If anything, they produce discomfort. So we agree to ignore it, pretend it does not happen, and -- most of all -- refuse to let it impact how we assess our political leadership, our Good Killings and, most of all, ourselves.

* * * * *

Most striking about these death-celebrations is how widespread they now are. There is very little opposition to, or even questioning of, any of it. It's basically a national consensus. That's because Republicans have always been enamored of eradicating the lives of decreed (i.e., accused) Bad Terrorist-Foreigners with no accountability, and many Democrats are now in favor of it as well under a Democratic President. I vividly recall how progressives tirelessly mocked Joe Lieberman for this passage from a 2007 New Yorker profile on him by Jeffrey Goldberg:

Lieberman likes expressions of American power. A few years ago, I was in a movie theatre in Washington when I noticed Lieberman and his wife, Hadassah, a few seats down. The film was “Behind Enemy Lines,” in which Owen Wilson plays a U.S. pilot shot down in Bosnia. Whenever the American military scored an onscreen hit, Lieberman pumped his fist and said, “Yeah!” and “All right!”

But this is exactly the sentiment that was produced among many progressives by the killings of bin Laden, Awlaki, Gadaffi, and the dozens and dozens of drone attacks launched under President Obama that killed people whose names they never even heard. More amazing, that death-celebrating reaction comes from people who detest the death penalty on the ground that killing convicted murderers -- even after they have been convicted of the most heinous crimes in a trial upheld by multiple appeals -- is barbaric, excessively empowers the state, and coarsens the national culture.

That Lieberman cackling is the same sentiment I encounter virtually every day from commentators making the case for Obama's foreign policy greatness. Here's what Andrew Sullivan wrote in celebrating Obama's greatness the way he used to celebrate Bush, Reagan and Thatcher's: "To rid the world of Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki and Moammar Qaddafi within six months: if Obama were a Republican, he'd be on Mount Rushmore by now." Sullivan also published a similar hagiography from a reader who insisted upon the President's greatness in part because of how he was able "to bring down an odious tyrant in Qaddafi, and killed a whole generation of al Qaeda leaders. And taking out Osama bin Laden the way he did will go down as one of the bravest military actions in American history."

That's how foreign policy greatness is established: by how many heads the Emperor can display on a pike. The President is not just entitled to kill anyone he wants in multiple countries around the world -- with no oversight, transparency or accountability, no evidence presented, no obligation to capture or try them, no need to even explain the principles that guide these killings -- but is to be celebated for doing so. And the piles of corpses of innocent people produced by this onslaught -- of teenagers, infants, innocent women and men -- are simply to be ignored. This is what Jeremy Scahill meant last night when he wrote on Twitter: "'America, Fuck Yeah!' is basically our foreign policy." And it's what Chris Hayes meant when he wrote: "I don't think it's a good thing for the nation's soul to be constantly celebrating people we've killed."

Constantly celebrating the people we kill -- dancing over their corpses -- is now one of the most significant and common American rituals shaping our political culture. One of the most consequential aspects of the Obama legacy is that this mentality has become fully bipartisan. And it's hard to see how this will change any time soon: once one goes down that road, it's very difficult to turn around and go back. That's true both individually and of a nation.


UPDATE: The Los Angeles Times, today: "For a president who promised to end the gunslinger ways of his predecessor, Barack Obama has proven himself comfortable with the use of lethal force. . . . All told this year, he has sent U.S. troops into action on land or in the skies of seven countries on two continents."

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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