Have you watched Star Wars (the original) lately? We all know what happens, of course. I’m not even going to put in a spoiler warning. Luke Skywalker flies down the Death Star trench, his wingmen falling one by one to the dogged pursuit of Darth Vader’s TIE Fighters. Luke, heeding Obi Wan’s ghostly voice turns off his targeting computer and connects with The Force. Vader targets Luke. Han Solo dives out of the sun to save Luke. Luke fires true and our heroes fly back to Yavin 4 as the Death Star explodes in the back ground.
They land and are greeted by the cheering throngs at the rebel base and receive kisses and medals from the beautiful Princess Leia (which must feel awkward for all involved when she turns out to be Luke’s sister…but I digress). But did you know that the Death Star, which we must assume was fully outfitted with personnel and equipment, would have had a full complement of 1,109,017 individuals on board when Luke destroyed it?
If we carry the story forward to the end of Return of the Jedi, Vader kills the emperor. The new Death Star is destroyed, and there is once again a large celebration in the Ewok Village on Endor. There’s even a shot of a cute little ewok drumming on discarded imperial helmets.
This summer, we are going to flock to theaters to watch Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort duel to the death, a death that will be met immediately with a riotous celebration (at least that’s what happened in the book.).
Now, I’ll grant that George Lucas probably did not plan for the moments immediately following the destruction of the Death Star to be filled with reflection on the moral ramifications of war, but these celebrations do raise a timely question. Are these characters that we view as heroes, namely the rebel alliance and the defenders of Hogwarts, a bunch of blood thirsty sociopaths who revel in the deaths of their fellow humans?
I would say no. When the rebels celebrated the destruction of the Death Star, they were not thinking of the thing as housing a million fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, husbands and wives. They weren’t celebrating the destruction of those lives. They were expressing relief at the destruction of an existential threat to their lives and the lives of their loved ones, one that had all too recently been used to obliterate an entire planet and was on the verge of doing so again.
As for the Return of the Jedi and Harry Potter analogies, in each case, the celebrants aren’t seeing the Emperor, Vader or Voldemort as people with their own humanity and connections to other people. They see them as the very epitome of evil. They see them as the source of fear, the face of nightmares, of violence, of death itself, and in the defeat of these evil individuals, they see evil itself dealt a defeat.
So why am I writing this now? It’s not in honor of Star Wars Day. (May the Fourth be with you, by the way.) That‘s just a happy coincidence. No, I’m writing this because there has been much discussion of late about whether the spontaneous celebrations that broke out after the announcement of Osama Bin Laden’s death were appropriate.
I think the chant of U-S-A, U-S-A is great at the Olympics or at other sporting events. I don’t like it in politics. I can’t stand the song “God Bless America,” and it’s replacement of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh inning stretch was an element, albeit a minor one, of the negative way in which we responded to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I don’t display a flag on my home or my car. It’s not that I don’t love my country. I do. I wouldn’t say and write the things I do if I didn’t love my country and want to foster that more perfect union that the framers called for in the Preamble to the Constitution. It’s just that I’m a believer in a quieter, more reflective and critical form of patriotism.
I also never bought into the “War on Terror” as conceived by the Bush Administration. I’ve never thought the vengefulness our nation, particularly its leaders, displayed after 9/11 did anything to keep us safe. The abandonment of our values, the trading for freedom for security, the blind rage with which we struck out against anyone who didn’t walk in lockstep with our belligerence, those things only divided us and alienated the very allies we needed both at home and abroad.
Given all these factors, one would think that I would be the last person to defend the celebrations and the chanting and the dancing in the streets. Yet I do defend them. I defend them because I was attacked too. I defend them because, while I didn’t buy into the fear mongering, I made that decision fully conscious of the fact that we do in fact live in a dangerous world, that there are in fact people that would kill me or my family without a second thought and that my refusal to organize my life in fear of a threat does not negate that threat.
So Osama Bin Laden became the face of evil for me, and I would suspect that he did for lots of us on the left. I’m not sure I consciously realized it, but I don’t know what else could cause the excitement and elation and pride that I felt as I learned the news. As much as I refused to organize my life around the remote chance of someone I love being caught up in a terrorist attack, I knew that the possibility did exist.
When I contemplate the celebrations, I ask myself about my own internal celebration. Am I celebrating a man’s death? Am I celebrating the fact that a mother will never see her son again? Am I celebrating that there may be people grieving, not out of hatred of us but out of genuine love for him? No. I’m celebrating for the same reason that the Rebel Alliance and the defenders of Hogwarts celebrate. I celebrate because that symbol of fear that has inhabited all our minds for the last decade can no longer hurt anyone.
We’ve all been impacted by Osama Bin Laden. He changed our world for ill. He is responsible for a great deal of death and destruction. It’s natural that we should feel joy, not at his death per se, but at the fact that his impact is at an end, that his shadow will fade from history.
I’m not worried about the celebrations. I haven’t heard about mosques being vandalized. I haven’t heard about violence. I’ve heard about the release of pent up fear and uncertainty, and that’s not a bad thing. Most importantly, however, I’ve heard people having this very discussion. We’re not celebrating blindly. We’re questioning our own motives and actions. We’re exploring the appropriateness of our celebrations. As much as anything else, that tells me that we as a nation are going to be okay.