Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Simon Stow

The College of William and Mary

"What America wants," William Dean Howells famously observed, "is a tragedy with a happy ending." For many, it seems, the state-sanctioned killing of Osama bin Laden appears to be exactly that. The narrative of "closure" in which the death of bin Laden is supposed to bring an end to the suffering not only of the relatives of the 9/11 victims, but also to the nation itself, has been ubiquitous in the media.

Tragedy is, however, much more complex than that. Tragic theater developed in Greece as a response to the tragic condition in which humanity finds itself: a world of irreconcilable conflicts, incommensurable values, uncertainty, contingency and doubt; a world in which, as my friend Steven Johnston puts it, what is gained is marked by what is lost. Tragedies, it should be said, do not have happy endings.

Tragic protagonists are often literally or figuratively blind. Lacking the complexity of worldview of the plays in which they appear, they stick to a singular perspective that usually seals their unpleasant fates. For the Greeks the word from which we take the modern term 'theater' meant 'seeing place.' Tragic theater offered its audiences a chance to see: a democratic pedagogy meant to help them recognize their tragic predicament; to help them avoid the fate of the plays' protagonists; and to overcome the singularity of perspective that is so damaging to critical reflection and democratic politics.

It was then with some reservation that I watched the outpouring of elation that marked the announcement of bin Laden's death. Large crowds gathered in front of the White House, at Ground Zero, and, more strangely perhaps, at college campuses across the nation (including, it might be noted, at the College of William and Mary where I teach). Each was marked by the waving of flags, the honking of car horns, off-key renditions of the 'Star Spangled Banner,' 'God Bless America,' and the chant, much-beloved of Homer Simpson, of "USA! USA! USA!".

Aeschylus' The Persians has sometimes been read as Athenian gloating over the defeat of their enemies, a reading for which there is much to be said. But, as befits the complexity of tragedy, there is also an acknowledgment that both the Greeks and the Persians are bound by their shared suffering. It is an acknowledgment that is meant to temper the celebration by highlighting the costs of victory, both to the Athenians, and to humanity.

As a resident alien I should perhaps make clear that I have no sympathy for bin Laden; that even in the absence of due process (an absence which gives me the liberal equivalent of Peter Parker's tingling Spidey sense), bin Laden probably got what he deserved. Nevertheless, that I feel that I should have to make this clear suggests the persistence in American politics of the problem that tragic theater is meant to overcome; a view epitomized, perhaps, by the previous president's declaration that you are either with us, or you are with the terrorists. For the record, and indeed, for the Department of Homeland Security, I am most certainly with you, not with the terrorists. As such, I am concerned that the outpouring of jubilation following bin Laden's death bespeaks a blindness common to the protagonists of tragic theater.

Two recent books by about bin Laden and Al Qaeda, Peter L. Bergen's The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al Qaeda (Free Press, 2011) and Michael Scheuer's Osama bin Laden (Oxford, 2011) suggest the uncertainty of the world in which we now find ourselves. Both are experts in the field, both have written compelling, well-researched, thoughtfully-argued books, but neither can agree with the other's account of bin Laden and his role in global terrorism. The Osama bin Laden identified by Bergen was a figure who had overreached and was suffering the consequences of having done so: provoking a war that robbed his organization of their secure base in Afghanistan, and neutralizing both his and its capacity to conduct successful acts of terror. For Scheurer on the other hand, bin Laden remained at the hub of Al Qaeda ongoing battles with the West. Even after bin Laden's death, and in spite of the Obama’s administration’s obvious need and attempts to embrace Scheurer’s bin Laden, we still do not know who, or whether either man, was right. It is a world of uncertainty and conflict in which the gains to the national psyche and the president's approval ratings of bin Laden's death may yet be marked by significant losses. For the other thing that tragedy teaches us is that revenge begets revenge, begets revenge.

Wisdom, Aeschylus observed, comes through suffering. The nation's reaction to bin Laden's death suggests that in spite of the its suffering on 9/11, we may have learned nothing at all.



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