I heard the news at 7 in the morning, driving home from my boyfriend’s house in that half-asleep 7 in the morning way. I was looking at the trees which seemed to have budded overnight, half listening to whatever overplayed thing they were playing on KSUI. Then the news came on. Osama bin Laden was killed by US troops at a compound in Pakistan. One of bin Laden’s sons and a woman and a courier were also killed.
The report went on. The President was pleased. The United States acted alone in this endeavor, without the knowledge or cooperation of other nations in the region. Bin Laden wasn’t actually living in a cave! He was in a multi-million dollar compound! The President talked in his sonorous way about the closing of a chapter, about a small group of US forces acting on his orders, with great care.
By the time I got home, they’d moved on to speculation and history. Would it really be possible to get aircraft into the compound unnoticed? Was Pakistan actually in on the arrangement because they were sick of dealing with bin Laden? A reporter talked about his childhood and his education and his turn to radical Islam. The 1998 attacks on the World Trade Center were mentioned. Bill Clinton spoke about that, out of the past, via a clip, sounding rather young. September 11. Tora Bora. Manhunt. Movements.
Then there were the celebrations — people singing the National Anthem outside the White House, people chanting USA! USA! USA! at a baseball game. My email brought a newsletter from a wine store urging me to raise a glass to the death of bin Laden.
No one mentioned the woman and the courier. I started to wonder if I had misheard. Maybe it was just the big guy, and I could worry simply about the ethical implications of assassination and not about what they call collateral damage. But no. The BBC says it was two couriers, two couriers and a woman. She was trying to be a human shield. She was like a woman in the Bible — no name, no job, just a tiny role in history. A woman at a well. A human shield.
Sometime on the afternoon or evening of September 11, 2001, after I finally dragged myself off my couch, where I’d felt pinned all day by Neal Conan blasting NPR listeners with the news, and even chastising one who suggested perhaps revenge was not the best option, I made a peace sign with masking tape on the window of my apartment. It stayed there till I moved out two years later. I felt ill that day because I knew we were going to war. I feel ill today because we did, and because we are still there.
People tend to regard pacifism as foolish at best and morally unforgivable at worst. Friends and strangers have told me it is a lazy philosophy. I suppose it is lazy, in that the answer to “should we go to war?” is always no. But it is not an easy philosophy to live with. You have to live with the idea of evil. You don’t get to think, “Well, of course I would have taken a shot at Hitler if I’d had a chance.” You feel sickened when your country kills someone, and you feel alienated from your country because everyone else seems. . . happy.
Lest there be any doubt, let me note for the record that I do not think bin Laden was a good guy. I do not defend his actions or his beliefs. But neither can I rejoice at his death, just as I cannot ignore that throwaway line at the end of the news report I first heard: a woman and a courier were also killed.
The passive voice takes away agency, but it cannot take away responsibility. The deaths caused in the name of one’s country are also one’s own. I’ve never learned how to handle that.