In the moments, hours, and days following the announcement of Osama bin Laden’s death I was repeatedly struck by the amount of attention paid to the manner in which Americans were responding to his death. Almost immediately I began to pick up notes of concerned introspection about the response (e.g., the jubilant crowds gathered at the White House and Ground Zero), and what ought to be the appropriate response.
This introspection appears to have been most pronounced within religious circles. At Christianity Today, Sarah Pulliam Bailey gathered together Tweets from a number of evangelical Christian leaders and bloggers addressing the question, “How should Christians respond to Osama bin Laden’s death?” A sizable comment thread formed below the post. At the religion and media web site, Get Religion, in a post titled “Churches respond to Osama’s death,” we get another round of links to church leaders writing about the appropriate response to the killing of bin Laden.
The topic, however, was also prominent in the more mainstream media. NPR, for example, ran a short piece titled “Is It Wrong to Celebrate Bin Laden’s Death” and another piece focused on bin Laden’s death titled “Is Celebrating Death Appropriate?” In the former story we get the following odd piece of reflection:
Laura Cunningham, a 22-year-old Manhattan reveler — gripping a Budweiser in her hand and sitting atop the shoulders of a friend — was part of the crowd at ground zero in the wee hours Monday. As people around her chanted “U-S-A,” Cunningham was struck by the emotional response. She told New York Observer: “It’s weird to celebrate someone’s death. It’s not exactly what we’re here to celebrate, but it’s wonderful that people are happy.”
I say “odd,” because it is not clear that this young lady knew what or why she was celebrating. “But it’s wonderful that people are happy”? What?
The NY Times also ran a story titled, “Celebrating a Death: Ugly, Maybe, but Only Human.” And, finally, in case you are interested, Noam Chomsky would also like you to know about his reaction to Osama’s death, although I imagine you can guess. Additionally, at CNN’s Belief Blog, you can read “Survey: Most Americans say its wrong to celebrate bin Laden’s death,” and Stephen Prothero’s reflections on the aforementioned survey. You get the idea.
So all of this strikes me as rather interesting. For one thing, I can’t really imagine this sort of self-awareness permeating the responses of previous generations to historical events of this sort. Of course, this may be because this event is sui generis, although I doubt that is quite right. It seems rather another instance of the self-reflexiveness and self-reference that has become a characteristic of our society. I might push this further by noting that this post just adds another layer, another mirror, as I reflect on the reflections. My usual explanation for this hypertrophied self-awareness is the collapse of taken-for-granted social structures and customs and the correlated rise of the liberated, spontaneous self. The spontaneous self as it turns out is not that spontaneous; rather it is performed. Performance is studied and aware of itself; conscious of its every response. Naturally then, we are asking at the cultural level whether our “spontaneous” celebrations were appropriate. Did we play this part right?
This posture seems to me to lack a certain degree of integrity, in the sense that our way of being in the world is not integrated; very little comes naturally, our actions all feel rather artificial. Perhaps especially at those times when we most wish we could just be fully in the moment, we rather feel a certain anxiety about feeling the right way — are we feeling the way we are supposed to be feeling, etc. However, the integrated self is also somewhat opaque to itself; it is capable of acting literally without thought, and thus perhaps thoughtlessly.
I’ll resist the temptation to provide a concluding paragraph that wraps things up neatly with a fresh insight. More of an aspiration than a temptation, I suppose, if the insight just isn’t there.