Hours before President Barack Obama announced that Osama Bin Laden was dead I was, by weird coincidence, in Memphis, Tennessee, early Sunday evening, May 1st. I had just been driven there after delivering a commencement address at Lane College in Jackson, about two hours east of that great music city. Memphis also happens to be the town where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. And for whatever reasons something kept telling me, because I had never done so before in spite of numerous trips to Memphis, to visit the Lorraine Motel, to stand beneath the balcony of room 306. I could feel Dr. King’s majestic spirit as I stared at the spot where he was murdered. A spirit that spoke so movingly, so convincingly, of nonviolence, of love, of peace.
A further irony during my stop is that Ziggy Marley, singer, songwriter, and son of the legendary reggae artist Bob Marley, happened to be performing in Memphis that afternoon, and too was drawn to Dr. King’s final life moments. So there we were, me and Ziggy, discussing briefly, the pull we both felt to pay our respects to Dr. King.
A few hours later the president, Barack Obama, announced to America, and the world, that Osama Bin Laden, the assumed mastermind behind the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3000 people, mostly Americans, at the World Trade Center in New York City, at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and via a plane crashing in the state of Pennsylvania, had been murdered by American forces.
I have very vivid memories, like most of us, of that awful day. I had given a speech the night before at Syracuse University, and was planning to board a plane back down to New York City that morning. But that would not happen. As I talked on the phone with my dear friend April Silver, I flipped on my hotel television set, at her urging, and, at that very instant, one and then a second plane crashed into the Twin Towers. Shock and complete numbness are not adequate words to describe what I felt. When I finally made it back to New York on September 12th, it was aboard an Amtrak train because airplanes were not going anywhere at that point. Never in my life did I think I would witness Manhattan, New York City’s busiest and most crowded borough on any given work day, so completely absent of people on the streets. It was utterly surreal.
And more surreal, over the next several weeks, were the crowds of people gathering at Union Square and other spaces, posting pictures of loved ones lost or missing, of Americans of various backgrounds coming together in ways previously unseen (I knew two individuals who died at the Twin Towers). Also very surreal were the sudden and over-the-top displays of patriotism, the instant anti-Muslim backlash (and physical attacks on people who appeared to be Muslim); and not long after George W. Bush and his administration leading America, step by step, into Iraq and Afghanistan, with thousands of young military personnel losing their lives.
Now America is also engaged in Libya, we are watching revolt and revolution happen throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa, against leaders and governments our nation has often supported or propped up, even as their citizens were being denied very basic human and civil rights. Finally, there is the endless war between Israelis and Palestinians, their collective song about “peace in the Middle East,” which never seems to come to fruition in spite of the conversations from both sides of this historical and very bloody beef.
So when President Obama announced the murder of Osama Bin Laden, by covert operations carried out by military personnel and under the charge of America’s Central Intelligence Agency, I understood why some Americans took to the streets cheering, celebrating, waving flags. And I understood why family members of those nearly 3000 who lost their lives feel a profound sense of justice, 10 years later. Osama Bin Laden is the poster boy for evil committed against America.
To that end, Mr. Obama’s speech was direct, forthright, and he used the sort of words and phrases I’ve heard from American presidents including Reagan, Clinton, and George W.: “securing our country,” “our sacrifices to make the world a safer place,” and “our resolve.” I don’t doubt Mr. Obama’s sincerity, but it certainly also was clear he was reading a teleprompter or, dare I say it, a script. A script that said we, America, somehow have the moral authority to murder when we’ve been wronged.
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I respectfully disagree with that position, with the notion that might create right. No matter how evil someone or their actions may be, I just cannot celebrate violence in any form. If it is wrong in my Brooklyn, New York community where violence is completely out of control—from gun violence to domestic violence to bullying—then it is also wrong globally. That is why I feel where Mr. Obama was incorrect in his speech, and where we’ve been incorrect, for a very long time, as Americans, is thinking that other nations, or terrorists, or this or that enemy, are simply picking on us because of our “freedoms.” There are enough articles, blogs, books, and documentary films out there, if one actually cares to research American history and American foreign policy, to let one know we’ve been, on numerous occasions, as violent toward others as others have been toward us. And, yes, we’ve even started quite a few of the clashes ourselves. This is not just some one-way street with our nation as the helpless, hapless victims. For sure, as Mr. Obama spoke, I thought about Dr. King’s famous and controversial speech on Vietnam, about his call for nonviolence everywhere, not just in America, of how we as a nation, in many ways, were the biggest purveyors of violence on the planet. Dr. King was roundly attacked and ostracized for his words, but I feel he was profoundly prophetic. 43 years since his assassination, the scenes have changed but the themes remain largely the same. Our nation just cannot get itself out of the endless loop of violent madness and mayhem. And you begin to wonder if we really want to, if we are so addicted to violence as the solution for conflict that we think there is no other way?
That is one of the main reasons why when Barack Obama was elected president on Tuesday, November 4, 2008, there was a worldwide outpouring of joy. People of all creeds saw not just the historic election of a Black man, a biracial man, in America, but the hope, the possibility, that he would be different, would do different, than his presidential predecessors. That Barack Obama would be, could be, a Dr. King-like figure, one who would work to bring people together, who would use diplomacy, as Nelson Mandela had in post-apartheid South Africa, instead of bombs, love instead of violence, with peace as the prime objective instead of chaos and confusion.
Moreover, we seem to forget that much of the world does not really care much for America. There is the perception that we are arrogant, that we are the self-appointed global police, even if it is sometimes under the cover of NATO or this or that coalition. These feelings were not birthed in a vacuum. If we just examine the Egyptian revolt from earlier this year it becomes clear why people feel the way they do. We financed Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak for three long decades, turned our heads on his abuses of power and the people, then initially announced we were standing by him until it became clear Egyptians weren’t having it. In other words, we cannot continue to claim we believe in democracy in America, while simultaneously condoning and aiding the opposite overseas. Nor can we continue to claim democratic values at home when poverty, attacks on workers and labor unions, horrific public schools, and a depressed economy and high unemployment have essentially created the same climate of citizen discontent in places like New York and Wisconsin as they have in the Middle East. No, Mr. Obama is not responsible for society problems, but he is the president, the leader, now, so it is his watch that demands changes. And action.
I believe it is for that reason Mr. Obama was given, extremely prematurely, a Nobel Peace Prize just a mere 9 months into his presidency. The feeling, perhaps very naively, was that he would transform America, and the world. I believe he still can, and I definitely am supporting President Obama for re-election in 2012. But Barack Obama, nor the American government, is above criticism or accountability. In his speech the president stated, “We are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to.” I agree. But I say we need to set our mind to being a different kind of nation in these early years of the 21st century, a nation that pushes peace instead of war, a nation that ceases to dwell in the us-versus-them mentality, and instead sees the collective humanity of the global community. Either we are going to be bridge builders or bridge destroyers. And the death of Osama Bin Laden is not cause for glee, street parties, or fist bumps. Nor should we foolishly be emailing images of Ground Zero of Bin Laden celebrations. What, precisely, is the point of that? And what does it say about our collective souls, as Americans, where death and murder becomes cause for happiness and merriment? Bin Laden being dead is not going to bring back those nearly 3000 lives. Our mission should be how do we prevent such a thing from ever happening again, what steps can we take as a government, as an American, to create goodwill on the planet?
So, at present, and in spite of Bin Laden’s murder, violence, war, and terrorism are not over, not by a long stretch. None of that will end until we help to make those things end. Our current mindset and foreign policy approach will only lead to more dead young American soldiers, more attacks on Americans here at home and abroad. And the entire world, including us, will be perpetually distrustful, forever looking over our shoulders and living a life in fear, that fear framed by metal detectors, security cameras, and sharp glances at people who appear to be different from you and I, whoever you and I think we are. And what, seriously, does any of that have to do with our democratic principles; with this grand experiment we call American democracy?
Perhaps that is why “founding father” Thomas Jefferson said, “Peace and friendship with all mankind is our wisest policy, and I wish we may be permitted to pursue it.” In other words, yes, Osama Bin Laden is dead, but now we have a very unique opportunity to go a different course, to create a lasting legacy of peace, in our lifetimes.
That is the great challenge for Mr. Obama. That is the great challenge for us all—
Kevin Powell is an activist, public speaker, and award-winning author or editor of 10 books, including Open Letters to America (essays) and No Sleep Till Brooklyn (poetry). Kevin lives in Brooklyn, New York. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @kevin_powell