I've been fascinated by the spectrum of reactions on Twitter to the death of Osama bin Laden. First, from two authors I respect; William Gibson retweeted a quote from Mark Twain; "I've never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure."
While Peter Straub wrote, "I hate to say this, I really do, but as a nation we can be almost aggressively simple-minded."
Even speaking as someone who doesn't support the death penalty, Straub's statement didn't sit right with me. It strikes me as a little arrogant--the jubilation on the part of the American people isn't borne of an extraordinary simple-mindedness. Rather, the respect for human life that causes one to refrain from celebrating bin Laden's death comes from an extraordinarily complicated point of view, and I'm far from inclined to look down on people for not sharing it.
I thought about Tolstoy's perspective on Napoleon, how he didn't really consider Napoleon responsible for the murder committed in his name. Napoleon, in Tolstoy's view, was merely one tool to facilitate the actions of masses of people whose attitudes had already commanded those actions, using the idea of Napoleon as a point of psychic support. One could say the same for bin Laden, which I suppose might make his death more significant to American victory than his life meant to al Qaeda success.
Nancy Sinatra said of bin Laden; "I've never celebrated anyone's death but I hope he was terrified &knew he was going to die just as his victims knew & were terrified." This is a statement I, and I suspect a lot of people, sympathise with. It's not really about hating bin Laden. It's about knowing the senseless deaths and the feelings of terror that followed in 2001 were in some way answered for, that someone can't just get away with that. That's simple, yeah, but some things are unavoidably simple.
At the same time, I'm glad there are people out there making statements reminding us that life is more complicated than our feelings, even as our feelings are important. Amanda Palmer tweeted a rather unclear statement in the form of a picture of stacks of what appear to be burnt cardboard representing the twin towers beside a hand holding a paper airplane ready to crash into them. I'm really not at all sure what this image is supposed to mean except that it's probably a goof of some kind, maybe in the spirit of Gilbert Gottfried. I tip my hat to contrariness.