The Nation We Still Are

Bill Murchison

5/3/2011 12:00:00 AM - Bill Murchison
The main thing is, we got him. Emphasis on all three words. They count equally, each one.

We, the people of the United States, personified in action by some of the best and bravest fighting men since the Spartans, got -- eliminated, sent to hell -- him who threw our times out of kilter through murder and personal vanity of unmeasurable dimensions.

We got him. "The bloody dog is dead," as Richmond sums up the downfall of Richard III: words equally applicable to the overthrow of Osama bin Laden. The world has witnessed an act of restoration and of cleansing.

Well, we know it. The spontaneous crowds at the White House chanting "USA, USA!" certainly knew it. So did the crowds at ground zero and Times Square. The moral force of a culture that seemed to have none, or not a lot anyway, awoke and stretched itself.

It wasn't so much that we didn't see the necessity of squaring matters with the world's best-known homicidal maniac. The invasion of Afghanistan, initiated by President George W. Bush, to whom history may give more credit than politics has assigned him, was a vast act of retribution. It cleansed -- notwithstanding that the maniac successfully fled his pursuers.

Then the muddle commenced: what to do with Afghanistan. Whether to invade Iraq and what to do with Iraq once it fell. The moral clarity of 2002 receded as the fighting recommenced and then accelerated. At home, the back-biting began. Suicide bombings became a common feature of life -- or as you, prefer, death -- in the Arab world, not to mention Europe. We pulled off our shoes at the airport. A hero president became a villain in many eyes. A different kind of president replaced him. Nothing, in short, seemed quite to work anymore.

Who knows but that the moral muddle of the decade's middle part encouraged the economic recklessness whose consequences still afflict us? Hunkered down at the airport with our arms over our heads, we found fear becoming the principle emotion of our times.

We forgot -- or were encouraged to forget -- the courage, determination, optimism and just plain efficiency the world has come to know as almost uniquely American. It would not be unfair to say many had quit thinking of themselves as American in the old-fashioned, never-quit, non-deterministic American way.

That Osama bin Laden got his just deserts at the hands of the special operations forces (who overmatched al-Qaida's best-trained brains and bodies) is a matter of urgent consequence. If it fails to bring back the decade's dead, especially those of the mournful day called 9/11, still it squares accounts.

It does more than that actually. It reminds us of the need for accounts actually to be squared -- for justice to be done and to be seen to be done. (One guesses the anti-death penalty gang aren't particularly cheerful today. Too bad about that.)

There's right, there's wrong; there's evil, there's good. Not to be able to tell them apart with some facility, confusing one person's "truth" with another person's, is to renounce humanity. The national rejoicings of Sunday night show that, deep down, we still know the urgent difference and knowingly care about it.

Then comes acting. A great nation isn't an impotent nation. It knows what to do -- something many of us haven't been wholly sure we still knew. Our avengers followed cold trails and hunted in blind alleys. Still the search went on. We showed character -- more of it perhaps than we knew we had.

Now the speculation commences. Will the admirers and acolytes of Osama retaliate? Will the raid give President Obama a leg up in next year's election? We don't know. We know today that things are much better worth knowing -- things about ourselves. I remark just one: No nation so mindful as this one of its deep obligations to the living and the dead alike is the spent force many have imagined it to be. The bloody dog is dead. And the moment is ripe for pride and for gratitude.