May 2, 2011
By Ben Voth
At 11:30 Eastern time on May 1, President Obama announced the official news of a rumor spreading like wildfire on the internet: Osama Bin Laden is dead. He was killed in a firefight with US forces outside Islamabad. The United States has possession of his body. The announcement is something of a rhetorical bookend to a 10-year saga that began on September 11, 2001. The death of Bin Laden is an important juncture for examining the rhetorical significance of his life and our own struggles to make meaning of Bin Laden's actions. We should interpret Bin Laden's death as an affirmation of moral meaning and a rejection of moral relativism. There are many reasons we should hold this view:
In Bin Laden's rhetorical framing, any person who visibly opposed his interpretation of God's will was a suitable subject for killing. This interpretation held by Bin Laden was rather unique, exceptional and intensely judgmental. Was not the United States similarly focused upon an interpretation of God's will that justified their killing of so many innocents?
It is this haunting subtextual moral echo that we should put to rest here and now. If we cannot, Bin Laden and a thousand other radical literalists will take millions to their deaths while we stand morally immobilized by the fear that we are no different. Bin Laden's will and judgments were tested by one man-- Bin Laden. The United States weighted its immediate actions in response to almost 3,000 dead in attacks on noncombatants. The continuous weighting of those options stretched across ten years, tens of thousands of volunteers committed to fighting Bin Laden, multiple democratic elections contested by tens of millions of thinking, arguing, polarized partisans.
The leader enacting the death of Bin Laden came to power challenging the power of the previous president committed to the same purpose of bringing justice to Bin Laden. Muslims rightly fought in the U.S. armed forces to kill Bin Laden. Muslim allies in armies made in Iraq and Afghanistan fought to kill Bin Laden and his lieutenants. Bin Laden was from a rhetorical standpoint a god unto himself. His killings were justified in his mind and they needed no other validation. Those kinds of isolated validations never existed for the forces that opposed Bin Laden. Indiscretions of soldiers in chains of command lead to punishments, expulsions, trials, and administrative reforms.
The moral universe of Bin Laden's opponents was wonderfully complex and incorporated the well being of millions of individuals voluntarily committed to a common cause across a panorama of faiths and the harsh tensions of partisan loyalty.
If we cannot see the moral difference between the deaths achieved by Bin Laden and the deaths achieved by coalition military forces, we are continually in jeopardy of rationalizing inaction in the face of authoritarian eliminationism predicated on plainly narrow grounds. In fact, the world is continually pestered by such voices. We must not say: we made Bin Laden, justice makes more terrorism, one man's war is another man's terrorism. These reflexive statements designed to immobilize the moral action of killing mass killers, are discursively flawed and they form the true basis of our war. We are at war with ourselves about confronting these monsters. We fear we are the monsters we chase and that our resistance to monsters makes them.
This is a fear we must master. We are not the monster and our resistance to them does not make them. Our resistance inspires those victimized by such monsters; challenges and limits those monsters; ultimately overcomes those monsters; and yes, kills such monsters. Tonight the world observed the departure of such a monster, and this would be a good moment to reflect upon and galvanize the good character of those who argued for it, fought for it, died for it, and rightly sacrificed to end the reign of a pretentious immoral prince of death. Osama Bin Laden has received justice and this is good.
Ben Voth is an associate professor and chair of Communication Studies in Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University.
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