Killing Osama bin Laden is not like winning the Olympics.
Don’t get me wrong. I take a grim satisfaction that the man behind the 9-11 attacks has been brought to the roughest kind of justice during a Navy SEAL operation in Pakistan. Seals, by the way, are in for a time of hero worship, beginning with a new book being rushed into print.
More about the book in a moment. I was watching the Phillies-Mets baseball game Sunday night when scattered chants of “USA! USA!” began to erupt from the crowd. The TV announcers almost immediately reported the breaking news of Osama bin Laden’s killing.
Players were visibly perplexed by the swelling chants and cheers, disconnected from the action on the field, as more and more fans got the news on their phones. Soon the cable news channels broadcast the now-iconic images of crowds celebrating outside the White House, at Ground Zero and in city streets across the country.
I can’t begrudge my countrymen their spontaneous exultation at the sudden and unexpected news of Osama’s come-uppance, but neither can I share in it. Is it really appropriate to cheer this event, as though we had beaten the Russians for the gold medal in hockey?
After two ruinous wars, the erosion of civil liberties, the embrace of torture by the U.S. government, the tens of thousands of civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, the thousands of American soldiers returning from combat wounded in body and mind — is this the time to trumpet American exceptionalism?
I don’t think so. America, whatever its virtues — and they are many — is a less innocent place than it was before. We’ve been assaulted by the world in ways we never had been before, and, in anger and grief and fear and wounded pride, we’ve assaulted the world in return, and with methods we’ve never used before.
There is much to admire in the imperfect American way we as a country have responded in the past decade, leading up to the Navy SEAL operation: Courage, resolve, persistence, sacrifice, competence — all traditional American qualities we can take just pride in.
But while this may be a job well done, too much has been lost to view Osama’s death as a triumph.
President Obama struck, as he sometimes does, just the right tone in his speech late Sunday night, telling the nation what had happened, and how, and why in simple, direct language. His demeanor was grave and steely. He embodied a particular American seriousness of mind and purpose:
A dirty job had been done, and done well, and the entire world is better because of it. But it was nonetheless a nasty conclusion to a nasty business, an occasion that calls less for rallies than for reflection, less for chanting than for gratitude, and less for fist-pumping cheers than for humility — which are also, if I may say, traditional American virtues.
But if I cannot share in the exultation of my fellow citizens, I can wonder and admire at the bravery and expertise of the Seals who tracked and cornered Osama. Competence is another traditional American quality in too-short supply, not just in recent years, but going all the way back to the end of the space race and the Vietnam War.
St. Martin’s Press can be forgiven if it rejoices in the great good luck of timing. Last year, the publisher signed up a Navy Seal to write a book, SEAL Team Six: Memoirs of an Elite Navy Seal Sniper, by Howard E Wasdin and co-author Stephen Templin.
SEAL Team Six, as we all know now, is the secret elite unit that carried out the raid against Osama’s compound in Pakistan. Naturally people are going to want to read all about its rigorous training and selection process, as well as Wasdin’s accounts of previous combat missions.
Originally scheduled for a late May publication, the book will now appear in bookstores as early as next week. It’s already No. 12 on Amazon’s bestseller list.