Friday, September 9, 2011

Glenn Greenwald is wrong about Osama bin Laden

Lots of my conservative friends like to accuse Salon's Glenn Greenwald of "moral equivalency," but I generally am glad that there's somebody with a halfway prominent media voice who brings a quality of hard-nosed empathy to our political debates. We Americans can become overly enamored of our own righteousness, to the point that we assume other people see us as we see ourselves—a sometimes fatal blinkeredness. Greenwald has repeatedly asked this question: If you were a run-of-the-mill Muslim family in the Middle East and your child died in an accidental NATO bombing, how would you react? It's not a bad question, and it's even strategically useful, but it makes lots of people mad that he keeps doing that.

Nonetheless, I think Greenwald takes his tendency a little too far with his reaction to the GOP audience that cheered Texas' 234 executions at the Republican debate the other night.
This morning's orgy of progressive condemnation made me think of very similar death-celebrations that erupted at the news that the U.S. military had pumped bullets into Osama bin Laden's skull and then dumped his corpse into the ocean. Those of us back then whoexpressed serious reservations about the boisterous public chanting and celebratory cheering of executions were accused by Good Democrats of all manner of deficiencies
Yes, the 9/11 attack was an atrocious act of slaughter; so were many of the violent, horrendous crimes which executed convicts unquestionably (sometimes by their own confession) committed. In all cases, performing giddy dances over state-produced corpses is odious and wrong.
Perhaps I'm overly parsing here, but I see a real difference. I thought the GOP reaction was a bit repugnant because it cheered government-sponsored death generally, and in the context of questioning a governor who seems to have overseen the execution of an innocent man and blocked any real investigation into the possibility of both the man's innocence and the governor's indifference to it.

I didn't participate in the "giddy dancing" over bin Laden's death—in part because I'd had major emergency surgery a few hours earlier, but also because I'm temperamentally inclined to believe that even on the rare occasions when government-sponsored death  is necessary and right, it's still an awful and grim business. But I don't blame people for celebrating, either. They weren't—like the GOP crowd—celebrating death. They were happy that a rough justice had been served upon a specific man—a villain, actually—responsible for nearly 3,000 deaths on 9/11 and a decade of misery and quagmire that has followed. There was bound to be an extremely emotional reaction to bin Laden's death or capture. That reaction was an instinct; the GOP audience, meanwhile, was cheering on possibly mistaken executions as a matter of thoroughly considered ideology.

Like I said, I find much of Greenwald's work useful. But not all government-sponsored death is equivalent, or equivalently bad. (If it was, we could never allow our police to shoot at Columbine or Virginia Tech gunmen.) In this matter, he's simply wrong.


S.L. Æris said...

You are wrong about Glenn Greenwald.

Joel said...

Cogently argued.