Monday, May 2, 2011

Abbottabad and the Miracle on Ice

The announcement of the killing of Osama bin Laden was one of the first galvanizing events of the post-Facebook age. As such, it generated an immediate response from a lot of my FB friends: from multiple Wizard of Oz references (“Ding Dong, the witch is dead”) to gags about Donald Trump’s demanding a death certificate (“and it better not be from Hawaii”) to musings on Fox News’s spin (“Obama Admits to Murder of Elderly Homeless Man”). There was also a snarky rhetorical question about whether any pro-life people were out celebrating.

Other responses were more philosophical, shying away from the gloating that characterized some people’s reactions: is celebrating a death, anyone’s death, a really good thing to do? There were quotations attributed to Mark Twain (“I've never wished a man dead, but I've read some obituaries with great pleasure.” —probably actually a slightly misquoted line from Clarence Darrow) and to Martin Luther King, Jr. (“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” —this much, at least, seems actually to have been Rev. King, although there was a tag at the beginning that wasn't), and at least one Biblical citation (“Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles; lest the Lord see it, and it displease Him.” Proverbs 24:17-18).

But the two Facebook posts that struck me were a wish that “it didn’t look so much like a sports rally” and a prediction of the certainty of Barack Obama’s re-election. Let’s start with the latter notion. While there are those who will no doubt try to make a case that Obama earned another term on the basis of a single military mission, it’s a shaky argument at best. True, President Obama deserves a modicum of credit, if that is the word, for what transpired in Abbottabad. If nothing else, he remained true to his campaign promise (one which was mocked by John McCain) to send American troops into a sovereign country—specifically, Pakistan—in pursuit of a known terrorist if the local government was “unwilling or unable” to do the job.

Whether this decision is ethically or legally defensible is an issue for another day: what matters in terms of this discussion is that it worked, at least until and unless there is a remarkable backlash from the Pakistanis. But Mr. Obama didn’t develop the intelligence-gathering apparatus, didn’t put the pieces together, didn’t plan the raid. He was simply smart enough to employ people with the skills to fulfill those functions. Should that keep Mr. Obama in the White House for another term? Nope. Will it? No, again, although it could help.

But I don’t think so. For one thing, in purely political terms, the operation was mis-timed. In fact, failure often works better than success as a re-election strategy. Just ask the Bushes: GHWB had 90+% popularity immediately after winning the first Gulf War, and was promptly defeated by Bill Clinton a little over 20 months later when other issues had time to become paramount. His son, however, accomplished little in the Afghan or Iraq Wars, but managed to win the 2004 election based largely on fear-mongering and a desire not to change leadership while at war. (N.B.: I am emphatically not suggesting that President George W. Bush intentionally dragged out the war as an election ploy.) We’re still a year and a half from November 2012: plenty of time for the electorate to forget this incident if the Republicans are in the position to run their own “it’s the economy, stupid” candidate.

But, more importantly, there was that enormous outpouring of quasi-patriotic emotion last night: at the White House, at Ground Zero, indeed all over the country, crowds of largely young people—those who were in grade school on 9/11—gathered to bellow off-key renditions of the Star-Spangled Banner, to embrace strangers, and to chant the now-familiar “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!”. Indeed, the observation of my FB friend who described a “sports rally” was especially apt.

I understand the impulse. If I’d still lived in the city of my doctoral alma mater, I’d have been part of the crowd of thousands who gathered downtown when the basketball team won the NCAA title three years ago. Our side had won a game, and it didn’t matter that nothing had really changed. Had a certain jump shot clanged off the rim with 1.9 seconds left in that game instead of hitting nothing but net, the team would have been no less skilled… but we won, and that was cause for celebration.

And, indeed, nothing has really changed in the last day or two: Osama bin Laden was little more than a figure-head, long since distanced from real operational leadership of al Qaeda. No one with any political sophistication thinks this one event will truly be a game-changer: it won’t change appropriations bills, bring the troops home any faster, or have any significant effect on global terrorism. True, there will be a considerable symbolic value that plays out for some time, and threat levels will likely be a little higher in the short term and a little lower in the longer term. But I don’t see anything of major significance. In geo-political terms, this is all good news for the US, but, frankly, the fall of Hosni Mubarak will resonate considerably louder and longer—or at least it will if we play our cards right.

And yet, there were those spontaneous demonstrations: seemingly authentic patriotic expressions that seemed over the top for all their unquestioned sincerity. Indeed, I was reminded not of the celebration of some generic sports victory, but of a specific incident in sports history: not of Kansas beating Memphis in basketball in 2008 or of New Orleans beating Indianapolis in football in 2010, but of the response to the semi-final win of the US Olympic hockey team over the seemingly invincible Soviets in 1980. That was the game that gave us heroes named Jim Craig and Mike Eruzione, one of the most memorable sports broadcasting moments ever (Al Michaels’s “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”), and the crystallization of the hitherto all-but-unknown “U-S-A!” chant.

I was living in a small town in Kentucky at the time, and if I wasn’t the only person in the area who had ever actually seen a hockey game, I was pretty damned close. But within minutes of the end of the game, there were dozens of vehicles cruising around the town square to the accompaniment of blaring car horns and the now-ubiquitous “U-S-A!”. In a town of only a few thousand residents, even counting the college students, there were scores of screaming people in the streets. True, that “Miracle on Ice” victory in Lake Placid was a significant athletic achievement, but the response was mind-blowing, especially since the overwhelming majority of the celebrants didn’t know a blue line from a poke-check.

It was the disproportionality of the excitement that caught my attention last night, as well. And that is where President Obama needs to take the right lesson away from the evening’s events. When people who knew nothing about the sport took to the streets to celebrate a hockey victory in 1980, it was because we needed some positive news, because we craved a reason to celebrate, well, anything, and a hockey game happened to be handy. At the time, the so-called “misery index” (inflation rate plus unemployment rate) hovered above 20% (by way of comparison, it’s under 12% now); the American Embassy in Teheran had been overrun three months earlier, resulting in dozens of US citizens being held hostage; the present looked bleak and the future bleaker. An outlet, any outlet, that let us feel good about ourselves was to be treasured.

We’re there again. The impetus for celebration existed last night, just as it did that February night in 1980, the last previous time I can recall when people all over the country celebrated and no one was unhappy (as would happen in a national election, for example, where tens of millions of people didn’t like the fact that Bush or Obama or whoever else was elected). But neither a semi-final hockey game nor the death of a single terrorist—even the biggest bogeyman in the pantheon of Bad Guys—is really a sufficient catalyst for the public response they engendered. That’s what ought to have Mr. Obama worried: the disproportionality. Because while getting a lot of praise for a military mission you endorsed is a good thing, people getting this excited over a newsworthy but ultimately tangential event isn’t. Mr. Obama would do well not to over-estimate his achievement just because the crowd did… because their excitement may well be driven as much by desperation as by patriotism.

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