Tribalism, Revenge, Principle and Politics
Given how our media/political culture is structured, it was inevitable that within a day (at most) of the news that a U.S. operation had killed Osama bin Laden, speculation would start to bubble about how much this would help President Obama's prospects for re-election next year. While the news of bin Laden's death pushed lingering speculation over Obama's release of his "long-form" birth certificate completely out of the headlines, I'd argue that the two items (the birth certificate and the killing of bin Laden) are related.
The "birther" issue obviously and transparently was about Obama's "otherness": the emotional need on the part of those who hate and fear this president to believe he wasn't born an American tied to the idea that he differs, in appearance but also in perspective and formative experience, from what we instinctively call to mind when hearing the word "American." The release of the certificate dispelled one aspect of difference (polls show the number who believe he was not born in the U.S. fell sharply after the release); but the president's emphasis on "getting" bin Laden (however defined) creates a new point of emotional connection between the president and a segment of voters who might not previously have identified with him. I wouldn't be shocked if his support among the military community is up next year; if so, remember this week. His determination to capture or kill the mastermind of 9/11 and evident satisfaction in having done so binds him to the public in a way we hadn't seen before.
As the story broke Sunday night, I was flipping back and forth between the Mets-Phillies game on ESPN and news coverage while waiting for Obama to speak. The news filtered through Citizens Bank Park, prompting spontaneous "U-S-A!" chants; this was, perhaps, a nice moment of community, as were the gatherings outside the White House and in Times Square. But there was something about the celebration of what essentially was a murder--however justified--that troubled a lot of us. My wife very quickly said it didn't change anything in the geopolitical sense; this is probably true, and I think Glenn Greenwald is right that this is more likely to prompt us to double down on belligerent and unwise foreign policy decisions than, say, declare victory in Afghanistan and speed up the process of withdrawal. It's sobering to think that our failures rather our successes are more likely to prompt thoughtful reconsideration of choices made.
(To be clear: I was glad to hear of bin Laden's death. I was in Lower Manhattan on the morning of 9/11, walked through the smoke and pulverized remains of the Towers to get to the Brooklyn Bridge and wander through Brooklyn toward home on that shocked, mostly silent morning. I had peripheral connections to a couple of those lost on that day, and like every New Yorker felt the deep wound that was inflicted on our City. Even worse, it remains my view that the attack knocked us off course as a nation and society; it ensconced the most consequentially harmful administration we've ever had, enmeshed us in multiple wars and pushed us down a dark road of war, lawlessness and debt that we remain on, and that I doubt we'll ever get off without consequences that might dwarf those of the attack itself. Maybe I'm just more inclined to mourn what I think has happened to my country than actively celebrate the demise of the individual among those most responsible for putting us on that unfortunate path. I don't begrudge others their rejoicing, but I couldn't really share in it.)
There are some who criticize what increasingly seems like an assassination mission, notwithstanding the claims of Pentagon officials that the strike team was prepared to take bin Laden into custody. I don't believe that, and while I share in the abstract Greenwald's concern that we don't seem particularly eager to hear the details... I'm not particularly eager to hear the details, and I can't shake the sense that we're better off with him dead than we would be with him in custody. We as a society aren't who we were 65 years ago, when the Nazi war criminals were tried for their crimes at Nuremberg; evidently we can't even try lesser terrorists, so there's no chance we could have done for Osama bin Laden. Instead, the national appetite for revenge would have been whetted that much further by the knowledge we could torture the mastermind of 9/11 whenever we wanted.
Self-indulgence, individual and collective, is now our universal watchword; we're bloodthirsty; we love spectacle; and we resolutely fail to perceive or even entertain the concept of causal relationships. If one faces these truths, it's clear no good would have come of imprisoning or trying bin Laden. In custody, he would have remained a symbol and rallying cry for terrorists and perhaps Arab Muslims more generally, depending on how things unfold with the Arab Spring. I wish things were otherwise, but they aren't, and it's difficult for me to believe that the president and his advisors didn't come to the same conclusion and thus gave the order to kill.
While the killing of bin Laden probably amounts to a political sugar rush for Obama, the development of this week that I think might really lift him next year was the Republicans' waffling on their proposed phase-out of Medicare. Every Republican in the House voted for this exceptionally unpopular measure... but then their leadership walked away from it. (It's something of a problem for the Republicans that without the Medicare changes, their budget doesn't get to balance even with all the other crazy assumptions--2 percent unemployment and so on--baked in.) The question is whether the Democrats can hang this on the Republicans next year, trapping the presidential nominee between a position the party's hardcore base and biggest donors are adamantly for but that large majorities reject. Given what they showed us in 2008, I think it's likely Obama's team will find a way to make this stick.
The Republicans have made an interesting bet on the politics of 2012: ostensibly that the public is ready to have a "serious conversation about the cost of government," but that it will buy their premise that all change should be on the spending side (NO NEW TAXES EVER! DADDY TOOK MY ICE CREAM!) and that almost all cuts should be on the backs of the poor and politically disadvantaged. This doesn't bespeak a wager on seriousness so much as selfishness and cruelty. I wish I had more confidence that they're wrong.