Lesson 5: The Language of Response: Leon Weiseltier on “The Case For Joy” And Osama
The experts will do the analysis, but the philosophers will parse the emotions. Leon Weiseltier has this piece, on The New Republic’s website, in which he talks about the difference between the emotions he saw in Lafayette Park near his home ten years ago this September, and the emotions in that same place he experienced the other night. He qualifies the difference between a crowd that exults in celebration and relief and a (closely related) crowd that rallies for revenge and/or action. This is one of the pieces of writing which will stand as emblematic when understanding the response--not the act.
The operation in Abbottabad was an act of revenge, certainly; but no mob had ever appeared at the gates of the White House calling for such revenge. It came only to affirm it when it was done. “Osama bin Gotten,” as one sign said. The kids last night were not bloodthirsty. They were merely aware that we have enemies. There was nothing awry with their feeling that the enemy of their country was their enemy, too.
I did not go to Lafayette Square only to watch; I went also to join. I have always believed in the moral character of counter-terrorism (and in the attendant calculus of means and ends, of course); and I was elated by this vindication of counter-terrorism, boldly but also scrupulously executed. I reacted viscerally to President Obama’s announcement, and in this case I have no apologies to make for my viscera. When the crowd outside the gates of the White House sang, more than once, more than twice, “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “God Bless America,” I sang with them, more than once, more than twice.
“I have no apologies to make for my viscera” are not the first words that might come to the minds of most American teenagers, but it is what they feel: unapologetic. What Weiseltier is saying in saying there is something now not unlike that moment a decade ago is powerful: we are not ashamed of what we feel. "Unapologetic viscera” does not negate the pain of loss but, because it is a shared feeling, it is an experience Americans have not had in a long time. We will hear more about the “attendant calculus of means and ends” in weeks and months to come.
Political activism may get people invested in politics, and affect urgently needed change, but it comes at the expense of tolerance and healthy democratic norms.