There was something unseemly about that gathering of college-age Americans outside the White House just before midnight on Sunday, cheering at the news of Osama bin Laden’s death. Some of the kids had draped flags over their shoulders; they chanted “USA, USA, USA.” I doubt there was a true patriot in the bunch.
Patriotism is not the same thing as cheering in the streets when your side wins the Super Bowl.
Patriotism is truest and best when it is quiet, the acceptance of civic duty, as a kind of fate—never with childish glee, but with mature resolution. I think of Pat Tillman, sitting alone in a football stadium after September 11th, deciding that he needed to abandon the boyish game that he loved and instead enlist as a soldier.
In the great novels, as in the great American Westerns, the moment when the tyrant or town bully is killed by the townspeople is a solemn moment. Victory over evil requires also a moral compromise. In order to destroy evil, the townspeople must bloody their own hands.
I doubt that the Navy Seal (whose identity we must certainly never know) is prancing around today with a flag draped over his shoulders, gloating over the fact that he shot the monster in the head. I could be wrong. But my guess is that the act of bringing down such a grotesque figure as Osama bin Laden does not provoke a skilled warrior to laughter. This is a solemn business. And the true patriot knows it.
The business of war—actually killing one’s enemy—is an inglorious enterprise. It is never what the parade crowd imagines in the shower of confetti when the war is over. Warfare is muddy and bloody and heart pounding scary. Patriots return from battle often sad and heart-broken, lame, blind, or haunted.
In the 10 years since Osama bin Laden had his terrible victory, politicians have dressed up as warriors and patriot-for-profit talk radio hosts have ranted about why we should send the young to war. But, in truth, America has not been a nation at war. A relatively small number of military families, disproportionately working class, has endured the war, and paid the price of battle.
Those college students outside the White House with flags draped over their shoulders—how many of them, do you suppose, have imagined themselves enlisting, actually being shipped to Afghanistan? How many of them understand that the act of fighting evil is nothing at all like making it to the finals of March Madness?
Osama bin Laden was a bit like us—those of us who have never thought of going to war. Osama bin Laden was an aristocrat warrior. He loved to be photographed alongside his rifles. But for much of his life he sent others to battle—many men, women, even children to die. In the end, he was a sickly parody of a warrior.
He played at being the great Islamic patriot. But, as President Obama rightly observed, he killed Muslims as freely as he killed the rest of us—infidels.
In the end, the grunts in bin Laden’s army slept under trees and died in the dust or strapped bombs around their childish waists Osama bin Laden wasn’t even—as legend had it—holed up in a cave. He lived in a villa on a pleasing street of sunlight. He spent his day at his computer, fighting by fax.
When he died—his wound inflicted by the Navy Seal—there was blood on his hands. But he died with soft, boyish hands.
Those adolescent patriots who trudged all the way from their dormitories at Georgetown or George Washington University to cheer the monster’s death at the gates of the White House would have done better to remember the thousands, no millions, of lives that Osama bin Laden injured with his diabolic vanity—in the name of God.
And now we are bound to see more parades in America, the celebrations by the false patriots in red, white and blue t-shirts, the flags, the chants. The patriotism for profit talk show hosts, the college students with soft hands will cheer our national victory. America has had its victory against evil.
But those men who achieved that victory are of a different sort altogether than the ready street patriots. We would do well to remember the true American patriots today—think of Pat Tillman and his compatriots—rather than gloat over the monster whose corpse has been cast to the bottom of the sea.
Richard Rodriguez is the author of “Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez” and “Days of Obligation: An Argument With My Mexican Father.”