On occasion, there are national events that capture our attention in part because they momentarily pull us away from distracting ourselves with American Idol and force us to look into the abyss. And outside of those things which are just pure tragedies, we can expect a variety of emotional reactions from fundamentally decent people. Look at the reactions to Obama releasing his birth certificate, for instance. Some people reacted to the vicious racism that caused this to happen with profound grief , and others–including the President– reacted with cutting humor . And just as surely as we can expect different people to react differently, we can also expect a wave of people expressing an urge that’s been deep in the American soul since the first Puritan stepped on Plymouth Rock: seeking out people enjoying themselves and telling them to cut it out.
This puritanical urge is a bipartisan urge, though it tends to manifest differently on the left and the right. But it was on full display when the moral scolds pulled out their rulers and started rapping the knuckles of those deemed to be enjoying the death of Osama Bin Laden a little too much. David Sirota’s scolding response to the jubilant celebrations is typical of the form, piously instructing people to play act somber displays even if they feel like running around the streets pumping their fists in the air. When I went on Twitter and asked people to lay off the celebrants, I got two reactions: conflating joy at victory with mindless nationalism; and variations on, “By asking people not to scold, aren’t you just doing the same thing that you say people shouldn’t do?” followed by the sound of a bong hit.
I understand the urge to silence and shame people for being ecstatic that we finally got Bin Laden. The fear that jubilation could turn into nationalism and then to bloodlust has real world evidence to back it up. But I would argue that liberals do ourselves no favors by shushing and shaming people’s joy. There’s another option that is both more humanistic and more productive in the long run: grappling with this celebratory mood and channeling it toward policy goals such as shutting down Gitmo and getting out of Afghanistan .
One reason the war on terror has dragged on and on with no end in sight is that Americans have been deprived of a victory, and politicians both Republican and Democrat are afraid of being seen as losers who backed out of a fight without obtaining that victory. Well, now we have it. And if you doubt that, we have the crowds of celebrants in the street to back it up. That is, after all, what victory looks like in the American imagination. We think of the end of WWII and we don’t think about the bomb or Hitler in a bunker. We immediately think of a sailor kissing a strange woman on the street. We think of joy. Joy provides emotional closure, which we never got after 9/11 and the distraction in Iraq. Maybe this joy at Osama Bin Laden’s death can provide that for us. And maybe then we can finally have politicians say that we won, and so we can finally shut down the illegal prisons, the ongoing war, and maybe even the ridiculous security theater at airports. But if we scold and silence the joy away, we’ll never get a chance to find out.