The Laugh Of Triumph

May 2, 2011

by Martin Odoni

I do often get irritated when I hear would-be intellectuals trying to prove their point by quoting George Orwell, as though the only qualification required for an idea to be true is that a man with an out-of-control tea fetish, who died over sixty years ago, agreed with it – or at least that a quote of his can be dressed up to make it look as though he agreed with it. Orwell was, by all means, a remarkable and thought-provoking writer, but he would be the first to insist that he was neither omniscient, nor infallible, nor the final word on every subject. Ironically, that’s one statement he might have made that I would not hesitate to quote.

But today one of the most disturbing and notorious quotes from perhaps his most famous work seems irresistible. Osama bin Laden, the most excessively famous terrorist the world has ever known, was pronounced dead today by the US President, at around 4:30am UK time. The reaction to it in parts of his nation was entirely predictable, but that has made it no less nauseating. Wild celebrations, cries of triumph, dancing in Times Square, songs of self-congratulation  by crowds gathered on Capitol Hill, joy unconfined, a parade of laughing two-fingered salutes, speeches shamelessly confusing revenge with justice, assassination and arbitrary punishment with courage and civilisation.   

There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy.

Is this really what the USA has allowed itself to be reduced to? In the name of democracy and freedom, its people sing, dance and drink to the death of a single man in advanced middle-age with a renal disorder. Whatever blood coats his hands, that is all the US forces have achieved, and yet we have scenes sickly reminiscent of the Palestinian celebrations on the 11th of September 2001, when the Twin Towers fell. You can draw distinctions, but the bottom line is it is still a laugh of triumph over death.

It is hard to say what is most horrifying; the almost barbaric triumphalism, or the naivety. There is a general acceptance that the war against Islamic Militancy is far from over, but the notion that today’s developments are even particularly significant is quite foolish. Symbolically it has some meaning, but only in a negative way; bin Laden now has the status of a martyr, a status that is only enhanced by American rejoicing. And strategically, it is nothing. Bin Laden’s time of prominence ended in 2001 with the destruction of his base at Tora Borah. Since that time, he has been a yesterday’s-man, his threat absolutely minimal. His death makes no positive difference at all, and serves no purpose beyond satisfying the USA’s seemingly endless appetite for revenge, its unquenchable thirst for showing its capacity for stamping its will on the rest of the world. Even that might be just barely tolerable, except 9/11 was not even bin Laden’s doing. It was the work of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, even if bin Laden endorsed it and provided money for it.

But even if there were a practical use for this ‘victory’, it makes the US reaction no less crude or barbaric. Triumphing over an enemy, no matter how much he deserved his fate (which he probably did), and celebrating like their favourite team has just scored a ninety-nine yard touchdown demonstrates the very same tribal, jingoistic hatred that the USA claims to be struggling against. The same medieval outlook, the militant ideal that war-war is better than jaw-jaw, as though Times Square has been occupied by a thousand rebirths of Henry V. Is this really what it was all about, is this really what the USA has come to? "We beat you! We win, we’re better than you!" That it takes a war to make the USA feel so good about itself speaks volumes for a deep sickness in its culture.

I would say it is fair to feel satisfaction that bin Laden has been brought to some semblance of justice – a very violent, arbitrarily-enforced justice for sure but at last he has been taken to task after some fashion – but triumph? Joy? Elation? This was not an FA Cup Final. This was not the Super Bowl, or the Ryder Cup, or the Centre Court at Wimbledon. Punching the air and singing, "It’s all gone quiet over there…" should be reserved for occasions like that, not as a way to greet the news of bloody death.

Sometimes war is necessary, but it is always abhorrent, and it should only be celebrated when it is definitely over. And it should never be celebrated for its only certain bounty – death.

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