As I wrote on the morning after bin Laden's death, this gleeful reaction was understandable given the slaughter Americans witnessed on 9/11. But there was still something notable, and troubling, about this episode. Such a rare display of unified, chest-beating national celebration is now possible only when the government produces a corpse for us to dance over. Some suggested at the time that Osama bin Laden was sui generis and that no lessons could or should be drawn from his killing; for that reason, even many people who are generally uncomfortable with such acts proudly celebrated his death as the elimination of a singular evil. But it seems clear that the bin Laden episode was no aberration, no exception: the American citizenry rarely finds cause to exude nationalistic pride except when the government succeeds in ending someone's life.
Since the bin Laden killing, we have witnessed a similar joyous reaction when the U.S. assassinated its own citizen, Anwar Awlaki (along with another American dubiously claimed to be "collateral damage") -- even though Awlaki was never indicted as a Terrorist, charged with treason, or accorded any due process, and even though the government never showed the public any evidence supporting its accusations. Instead, Obama officials, with no evidence offered, simply declared him to be a Bad Terrorist, and that was all that was needed: hordes of his fellow Americans did not merely approve -- but cheered -- the news that a drone had found and killed him.
Identically, both before and after the Awlaki killing, Americans have routinely celebrated the drone-deaths of hundreds of individuals about whom they knew nothing other than the fact that the Terrorist label had been applied to them by the U.S. Government. It's as though there is a belief that American missiles do not detonate unless they hit an actual Terrorist.
And now the graphic photo of the corpse of Moammar Gaddafi is once again sparking outbursts of American pride -- despite the fact that he was captured alive, and very well may have been summarily executed. As I wrote previously, "no decent human being would possibly harbor any sympathy for Gadaffi, just as none harbored any for Saddam." And it's understandable that Libyans who suffered for four decades under his rule (like Americans after 9/11 or Muslims after years of violence and aggression in their countries) would be eager for vengeance. Nonetheless, and regardless of what one thinks about Gadaffi or the intervention, summarily shooting a helpless detainee in the head is one of the most barbaric acts imaginable -- under all circumstances -- but Gadaffi's gruesome death nonetheless sparked waves of American jubilation and decrees of self-vindication this week.
It is difficult to articulate exactly why, but there is something very significant about a nation that so continuously finds purpose and joy in the corpses its government produces, while finding it in so little else. During the Bush years, I frequently wrote about how repetitive, endless fear-mongering over Terrorism and the authoritarian radicalism justified in its name was changing -- infecting and degrading -- not just America's policies but its national character. Among other things, this constant fixation on alleged threats produces the mindset that once the government decrees someone to be a Bad Guy, then anything and everything done to them (or ostensibly done to stop them) is not merely justified but is cause for celebration. That was the mentality that justified renditions, Guantanamo, vast illegal domestic surveillance, aggressive war against Iraq, and the worldwide torture regime: unless you support the Terrorists and Saddam, how could you oppose any of that?
That character-degradation is produced at least as much by conditioning the citizenry to stand and cheer, to beat its chest, to feel righteous and proud, each time the government produces a new dead Bad Guy. Even at its most necessary and justified, the act of ending a human life with state violence should be a somber and lamentable affair. There's something bloodthirsty about reacting ecstatically. To react that way when guilt is unproven (Awlaki), or when the person is unknown (most drone victims), or is killed by acts of pure barbarism (Gadaffi) is the mind of a savage. But it's now been more than a decade since 9/11, and this has been the prevailing mentality in America continuously since then (to say nothing about the lengthy, brutal wars fought before that). What happens to a citizenry and a nation that so frequently erupts into celebratory dances over the latest dead body its government displays?