My thoughts on this feel quite derivative and much-echoed right now — it seems every other post on Twitter has a twist or insight more worthy of dissemination than what’s rattling in my head. But I think I’ll want to know what I thought today, maybe in a few years when I’m explaining to my kids what it was like to live my third decade in the middle of the War on Terror. So here it is, for what it’s worth.
Osama Bin Laden was a mass murderer of my countrymen, and if anyone can deserve to die, he did. I think the world is a better place without him in it. I don’t feel joy at his death, as many don’t, but I don’t think I can begrudge those who do. I have two hopes right now, and I don’t know which is greater or more likely: That the families of the men and women killed on 9/11 and in the Middle East derive some comfort from Bin Laden’s death, and that it signals the beginning of our withdrawal from the deserts and cities that have eaten away at our armed forces for so long that no one any longer bothers to post body counts. I hope my children will grow up in a world where young people are not sacrificed far from home for gains no one can verify or understand. And I hope that, once we’ve healed a bit from our Middle Eastern adventures, we as a country can seriously assess the virtues of a “volunteer” military drawn disproportionately from the poor, and so taxed by the efforts demanded by our politicians that it can no longer maintain basic standards of education and good conduct for those it hires to kill our enemies.
I can’t help but feel that Bin Laden’s slaying was too convenient. Not in the sense that he was killed for political gain, or that the soldiers who killed him should have held back — those are things I’ll never know. Too convenient in the sense that we can now say, and truly, that we slew the dragon in his den. And I simply don’t think we’ve earned that kind of simplicity, that catharsis. I exclude from this the soldiers who performed the mission, and just about all others; they deserve all the experience points, gold, and magical items the world has to offer. But not the rest of us. The rest of us are not warriors; we fear death too much to risk death. Our understanding of violence is denatured, and we should not exult in it as we do in lighter contests. Recent electoral politics, the mortgage crisis, and the rapidly expanding bubble in higher education point toward the same thing, an America addicted to simple answers. Simple stories. Knights and dragons.
And perhaps I’ve mined something useful from this exegesis after all, or even exposed its hidden engine. My novel — Christ, I hate to say that when it isn’t published, but that’s what it is — THE DANDELION KNIGHT, is very much about terrorism; it was conceived in the later years of the Bush presidency and concerns the relationship between an isolationist police state and a terrorist organization constructed around the image of a Robin-Hood-like folk hero. And it’s also written very much in reaction to genre tropes in fantasy and science fiction — too much so, arguably; it rears away from them with all the forethought of a horse shying from a snake, or so an uncharitable reading might reasonably say. And I never really took seriously the idea that these political and literary concerns might be related. I like China Miéville’s contra-Tolkienist writings as much as anyone else, but I read them mostly as entertainment; I’m a neuroscientist, and all this political stuff seems rather a priori to me, and quite separate from how stories do and don’t satisfy their readers. And I guess what I’m suggesting here is, maybe not. Which would come as a surprise to no one else, or at least not to most writers, but I do tend to insist on learning things on my own. I wrote a post a few months back, a word-by-word workshop on the first two sentences in Naomi Novik’s first novel, HIS MAJESTY’S DRAGON, and one of the things that rang wrong was her invocation of “the numbing haze of battle-fever,” as though geeks like her and me had any idea what that was. I suppose there’s politics in that — less in the image than the shared understanding with which it wrongly credits us. (There’s a book-length hedge that ought to follow this, which I will summarize thus: I do not endorse the dictum of writing “what you know” except in the loosest sense. I am, when I have time, a fantasist. The point is just that image should convey experience, not presuppose it. This is wrong in the limit, of course, but basically right.)
Anyway, I’ll return briefly from this narcissistic digression to issue the following qualification: I know I’m not the person to declare whether America, whatever that is, has earned catharsis. I have been housed, employed, and in the black since Osama Bin Laden became infamous; I have gone on vacations, eaten good food, published stories and papers, earned my bachelor’s and Ph.D., and married the woman I love surrounded by my friends and family. I don’t need this narrative. But maybe some people do. That’s for them to decide. For myself, I will continue to wish, faintly and with diminishing conviction as the weeks pass, that Bin Laden had been captured instead of killed. That we had found ourselves forced to treat him, not like the dragon we have made him, but like the human he had — to all our shame — been all along.