Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Symbol versus Function Take Two

I saw two headlines this morning. The first said, "The world is safer" (The Philadelphia Inquirer). The one immediately underneath it said, "TSA on Security Alert after Bin Laden Death". Which I think nicely sums up everything that needs to be said about the death of Osama Bin Laden. It's hard to tell who's delusional--the press or the TSA. I'll put my money on the press. It's entirely possible that taking out Bin Laden will take some of the wind out of al Qaeda's sails. It's also possible that we'll see a resurgence in terrorist activity.

With regards to the current celebrating over Bin Laden's death, a lot of people are disturbed about the celebrating of an event like death. When it comes to killing, two wrongs don't necessarily make a right. On the other hand, as a Facebook friend put it, "Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader; he was a mass murderer". Those who lost someone in the World Trade Center attacks almost 10 years ago may feel a sense of relief or justice. Regardless of viewpoint, the death of Bin Laden is the second example in less than a week of symbol preceding function. I mentioned it in my last post in connection with the royal wedding, and it applies here, too.

On some shadowy level, all of us have the potential to be hateful, all of us have the potential to kill. It's innate in human nature; it's innate in life. Life on the most basic biological level is killing and eating. But that's just a small part of what drives celebration over death. In this case, Bin Laden had become a symbol of fear. He was a symbol of America under attack, of Muslim fundamentalism at its worst, of everything that is supposed to be the antithesis of national values. He has ceased to be human in the collective mind. Killing the source of fear brings about a collective psychological relief. It doesn't matter that there are other terrorists out there. It doesn't matter that al Qaeda is likely to continue its existence, with other extremists. It doesn't matter that someone else could gain prominence and be like Bin Laden. Facts DON'T matter when it comes to the collective psyche. It's the old scapegoat ritual, where all of the sins of a community are symbolically put into an animal, and that animal is either killed or banished. If you think ritual doesn't count for anything in the 21st century, think again. We've just participated.

I'm not interested in delving into the ethics of the situation. This is simply the psychological fact, regardless of where one stands on such killing, on war, and on life. Your personal ethics will naturally dictate your response to the event. NPR ran an article today asking, "Is it wrong to celebrate Bin Laden's death?" Certainly it is an ethical conundrum for those who believe killing is wrong under any circumstances. They have to struggle with the collective response.

I would suggest that sometimes, to choose life means choosing death. They're not as mutually exclusive as you would think. You can give that some thought.

As for me, I need to get ready for work. I've been trying to cram too much into my days, and it tends to make me irritable. I don't like when my sense of ambition lags behind my growing to-do list. The cat has worked hard at being helpful, sitting in the middle of piles of papers while I'm working, and hiding under the sofa to make sneak attacks when I walk by. Now he is contentedly washing his face while simultaneously watching for mice in the corner of the living room. Apparently he is much better at multitasking than I am.

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