Osama Bin Laden, evil incarnate, has justified so, so much American violence in the 21st century. We have launched two wars and executed God knows how many covert military operations in the ethereal, never-ending fight he personifies. We have made racial profiling of Muslim Americans normative, turned an already broken immigration system into an arm of national defense, and reversed decades worth of hard-won civil liberties while pursuing him, dead or alive. We have abandoned even the conceit of respect for human rights in places stretching from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo Bay in the course of hunting him down. Now, finally, the devil is dead.
Upon the news of this victory, crowds gathered in front of the White House and at Ground Zero to chant “U.S.A.! U.S.A!” It was as if we’d just won an Olympic hockey game, rather than capped a decade worth of war and recession with a singular act of violence.
“Today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people,” the president declared. “We are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to,” he concluded, after insisting that the execution represents justice. “That is the story of our history, whether it’s the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens; our commitment to stand up for our values abroad, and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place.”
How perverse. President Obama is the leader of a nation in which justice is but a distant dream for millions of residents. He leads a nation that can afford billions of dollars annually for war but cannot feed the nearly 18 million children who lived in homes without food security in 2009. And yet, the Nobel Peace Prize winner can fix his mouth to say that killing a man on the other side of the globe provides proof of America’s exceptionalism.
The gap between rhetoric and reality has long been a defining trait of American life. Lies about our values have shielded us from the brutal facts of our nation ever since we built it on the back of genocide and slavery. But it is in times like these that the dissonance becomes unbearable.
The president says we can do anything we want because we can kill. We could not stop poverty rates from spiraling upward to a record-setting 14.3 percent of Americans in 2009, but we can kill so we are exceptional. One in four black and Latino families live below the poverty line now, and as a result America’s child poverty rate—one in five kids—is the second worst among rich nations, behind Mexico. But we can kill, so we are great.
Fourteen million Americans are out of work, nearly a third of them for more than a year. The Depression-like jobs crises in black neighborhoods around the country have become so acceptable as to be literally unremarkable in national news media. When overall joblessness inched downward in March, the fact that black unemployment increased, again, was greeted with callous shrugs from the White House to CNN. But America is exceptional because we can kill.
Our economy is defined by greed. The top 1 percent of earners take home a quarter of income in this country. Wall Street banks are logging record profits while the Treasury Department professes helplessness at the fact that tens of millions of people are still losing their homes to those banks. Because of that foreclosure crisis, the stunning racial wealth gap—the typical black family has a dime for a dollar of wealth held by its white counterpart—will surely grow worse. The White House is paralyzed with inaction in the face of all of these challenges. But it can kill, so we are great.
We have the world’s most expensive health care system, and yet in 2009 infant mortality in the U.S. was higher than in 29 other countries and the worst among rich nations. Why? In large part because the infant mortality rate is so high among black and Latina women. We cannot find justice for them, but we can kill and call it justice.
We have a $14 trillion deficit. A massive giveaway to defense contractors lurks inside that number—a transfer of public funds that has been justified, in ways both explicit and implicit, by the evil visage of Osama Bin Laden. And now, Washington is as likely as not to make up the loss by taking apart the safety net that once created something like economic justice in America. But the president would like us to agree that we are great because we can kill.
“May God bless the United States of America,” Obama declared last night, a sentiment echoed by so many today. Indeed. But the familiar refrain feels to me more like an urgent plea for forgiveness than the triumphant war cry that it is.