Writing in the New York Times, Jonathan Haidt, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, commented:
‘Although Americans are in full agreement that the demise of Osama bin Laden is a good thing, many are disturbed by the revelry.’ (Haidt, ‘Why We Celebrate a Killing,’ New York Times, May 7, 2011)
Haidt thereby dismissed the many Americans who reject extrajudicial killing and capital punishment. American lawyer, Benjamin Ferencz, a prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, pointed out:
‘Assassination is specifically prohibited under American law. It hadn’t been that way all the time. The CIA had always had at the top of its list the possibility of assassination as a technique until the Congress said, “No way, we don’t do business that way.”‘
There is much discussion about the legality or illegality of the West’s many wars. Ferencz explained the real relationship between war and law:
‘End war-making and go back to what the law is. And that is that you cannot use armed force to settle disputes, you can use only lawful and peaceful means to do that.’
Law is intended to be an alternative to war, not a way of justifying war.
But wouldn’t resort to the rule of law in the form of a trial have allowed bin Laden to spread propaganda, to present himself as a martyr for a noble cause? Did killing him not protect American lives? Ferencz pointed out the naivety of imagining that violence is the most potent resort:
‘You apprehend him, if you can without danger to yourself. Put him on trial. Let him make his case. Let him say to the world why they killed 3,000 people in New York City and many thousands elsewhere. And see how the public and the judges react to it. There will be, of course, some extreme elements on both sides which will say, ‘No, kill him at once. He’s a dirty dog and he deserves to be shot.’ And there will be others who will say that ‘No matter what you do, he is our holy man and he is carrying out noble goals.’ But these will be the extreme cases. The vast majority of the people will say, when the evidence is in, that this is a form of madness!
‘You cannot kill an ideology with a gun. You can only come with a better ideology and let them explain it and see what the facts are. We did that at Nuremberg. I had mass killers there; I was chief prosecutor in a trial where our lead defendant admitted killing 90,000 Jews because they were Jews, including their children, and their grandchildren, and anybody else. Well, when they explained their motivation – that this was a pre-emptive attempt to avoid attack by Russia and to secure German security [and] for the rest of the world forever – that argument was rejected, and rejected correctly by honest judges who explained why that position cannot be tolerated if you want to have a civilised world. If everybody can go out and decide he’s threatened by his neighbour, in his opinion, and therefore kill him and everybody around him, what kind of a world would we have?’
Haidt took a very different view. ‘As a social psychologist,’ he opined, he was aware that careless thinking on moral issues could have negative consequences, namely: ‘you’ll miss all that was good, healthy and even altruistic about last week’s celebrations’.
We wrote on May 7:
Dear Jonathan Haidt
I was interested to read your New York Times piece on “collective effervescence”. Can you think of any examples when it has been “good, healthy and even altruistic” for people to cheer the killing of Americans? I have to admit I can’t think of any examples.
As the email suggests, we can politically reverse any given argument, apply it to official enemies, and ask ourselves if the author would ever be willing to make such a comment. In this case, the reversal would involve Haidt warning people against missing ‘all that was good, healthy and even altruistic’ about celebrating the killing of US military leaders, US soldiers, or New Yorkers on September 11, 2001. Can we imagine Haidt or anyone else in the media ever saying such a thing? If the answer is ‘No,’ it can be for one of two reasons:
1) The United States is morally superior to its official enemies, such that it is acceptable for the American public to celebrate the demise of their inferior foes, but immoral for those enemies to celebrate the death of Americans.
2) The US is not morally superior. Rather, US commentators conform to the ‘necessary illusion’ that different standards should be applied to US and enemy actions. In other words, US opinion is biased by the ability of power to shape the debate – technical term: propaganda.
Of course, commentators and readers can be blind to this propaganda component. Thus Haidt actually declares:
‘Many social psychologists distinguish patriotism — a love of one’s own country — from nationalism, which is the view that one’s own country is superior to other countries and should therefore be dominant.’
But he added:
‘This is why I believe that last week’s celebrations were good and healthy. America achieved its goal — bravely and decisively — after 10 painful years. People who love their country sought out one another to share collective effervescence. They stepped out of their petty and partisan selves and became, briefly, just Americans rejoicing together.’
Would Haidt argue that Iraqi celebrations were ‘good and healthy’ if Iraqi commandos somehow managed to execute George W. Bush? As Noam Chomsky commented recently:
‘Uncontroversially, [Bush’s] crimes vastly exceed bin Laden’s, and he is not a “suspect” but uncontroversially the “decider” who gave the orders to commit the “supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole” (quoting the Nuremberg Tribunal) for which Nazi criminals were hanged: the hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of refugees, destruction of much of the country, the bitter sectarian conflict that has now spread to the rest of the region.’
We received a reply from Haidt to our email on May 18:
Dear Mr. Edwards:
when America is led by a man whose direct goal is to kill as many innocent civilians as possible, e.g., a man with the moral status of Bin Laden or Hitler, then the world will be quite justified in celebrating.
Thankfully, that has never happened.
And yet in his article, Haidt focused, not on the justice of the cause Americans were celebrating, but on the simple fact that they were celebrating as a group:
‘We have all the old selfish programming of other primates, but we also have a more recent overlay that makes us able to become, briefly, hive creatures like bees.’
‘This hive-ish moment won’t last long. But in the communal joy of last week, many of us felt, for an instant, that Americans might still be capable of working together to meet threats and challenges far greater than Osama bin Laden.’
It is unclear why Haidt would not also laud the ‘hive-ish’ behaviour of non-Americans.
Warrior President – Watch The Chin!
The BBC’s North America correspondent, Matt Frei, wrote:
‘Even in the eyes of his critics, Barack Obama has made the transition from wimp to warrior president.’
At first sight, this may seem like a neutral comment on the impact of bin Laden’s death on Obama’s political fortunes. But if we conduct our reversing thought experiment, we can ask if Frei would ever respond to Iranian, Venezuelan or North Korean state assassination inside a sovereign country by writing, for example: ‘Even in the eyes of his critics, Ahmadinejad has made the transition from wimp to warrior president.’
Is that conceivable? Surely not, because the comment in fact expresses journalistic approval, which is not permitted in relation to enemies of the West. Imagine if the comment was in response to an Iranian attack on Israel, or on the United States. The propaganda content of Frei’s comment becomes obvious.
‘Unlike the invasions of Iraq or even Afghanistan this was an act that needed no explanation or – for most Americans at least – justification.’
A BBC journalist, Mario Cacciottolo, took issue with our criticism of Frei on Twitter, observing of this last comment:
‘That’s a comment piece – therefore opinions are rightly expressed. It’s only unbalanced if in a straight news report’
‘If Frei ever described as “an act that needed no explanation” any act of violence against the US or UK, he’d be out of a job, obviously.’
‘You’ve not worked as a journalist have you? Don’t think you’ll change your vision of us all wearing eyepatches and stroking cats.’
A level and tone of response with which we have grown familiar over the past ten years.
Frei also produced a cringe-making video piece on Obama in which he invited viewers to study the president’s face in order to ‘Watch the chin!’, which was strong and proud, we were to understand: Again, Frei emphasised that Obama felt like ‘a warrior president’.
In similar vein, Simon Sebag Montefiore wrote in The Times of Obama:
‘In that moment, the golden-tongued liberal… metamorphosed into the victorious warlord…’ (Simon Sebag Montefiore, ‘A fitting death for a multimedia Mujahid,’ The Times, May 7, 2011)
The Guardian also lauded the violence in a leading article entitled, ‘Belief returns’:
‘Yesterday he had a chance to make the same grab for the higher ground and remain on it. No longer as a dangerous, possibly even un-American liberal intent on pushing through unpopular reforms in stormy times but as a leader who can harness the mood of the nation.’
No mention that it might be ‘dangerous’, ‘un-American’ and illiberal to order political assassination inside a sovereign state.
A leader in The Times observed:
‘When evil goes unpunished, justice, peace and reconciliation remain blighted in its shadow. For almost ten long years the families of thousands of men, women and children who died in pain and terror have known no justice or end to their mental agony while Osama bin Laden eluded capture.’ (Leading article, ‘Closure,’ The Times, May 3, 2011)
Replace ‘bin Laden’ with ‘Bush’ and The Times could have been describing Iraq. The editors cautioned:
‘To some, cheering news of a death might seem inappropriate. But it is important to remember how raw still are emotions in a country violated by al-Qaeda.’
Again, the focus is fixed on what ‘they’ have done to ‘us’. The far greater violations ‘we’ have inflicted on ‘them’ do not exist. However appalling bin Laden’s methods, the grievances he described – the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their homeland, US military bases and related support for tyrannies in Muslim countries, and the genocidal impact of Western sanctions and war on Iraq – are real.
The media rush to glorify Obama the ‘warrior president’ is symptomatic of a Western society that has come to view war as entirely normal. Huge numbers of films, video games and media indulge the lust for violence and war. It is by now almost impossible to imagine that the West would not always be attacking, or targeting for attack, some defenceless nation or other. As Ferencz commented:
‘We’ve all been raised in a tradition of glorification of war. That is the way to peace, and that is the way to power and that is the way to riches. And everybody who engages in war is a great hero.’
These are toxic illusions that erode the very foundations of civilised society.