On the Death of the Adversary

May 12, 2011 by Geoff Rickly

On the Death of the Adversary

 

"If you like, I am glad that he is dead. At the same time his loss wounds me. Why? He has taken a piece of my life with him into his death, irrevocably. And a grain of his death has scattered it's dismaying seed within me." 
-Death of the Adversary, Hans Keilson

Hans Keilson wrote those words in the Nazi-occupied Europe of WWII. He is speaking of Adolf Hitler (although he never utters his name) and though the words are over 50 years old and from another continent, they resonate clearly, now, after the death of Osama Bin Laden. 

First, let me be clear: "I am glad that he is dead." I remember returning home from tour on the night of September 10, 2001, and waking up to a different world on September 11. We all lost friends and countrymen on that day and the world at large has lost much in it's aftermath. I do not mourn the loss of a terrorist, an enemy, a murderer. 

"At the same time, his loss wounds me." I believe we've all felt a certain pain at the news of his death. "Why?" In a sense, it's a familiar story: vengeance can't bring the dead back to life. While Bin Laden was still at large, we were able to focus on catching him and bringing him to justice. Now, having done so, we are left to face the emptiness that comes with losing your enemy. We feel the loss of the initial tragedy all over again and doubly, since we know this story is over, with no further chance for 'making things right.' We realize, things will never be right. "He has taken a piece of my life with him into his death, irrevocably."

This was one of the central themes in Kielson's book and one that seems especially relevant today: The idea that we all define ourselves in opposition to an adversary. Keilson feels that, in his role as victim, he needs Hitler as a tormentor to be complete much as the US has relied on Bin Laden as an iconic totem of evil to justify our actions and to cast us in the part of guardians of justice. The question is, will we able to maintain this role without a villain? Could Batman exist without the Joker? Would light provide any sight without the contrast of darkness to give it detail?

More importantly, have we become better, stronger, more just people in the last ten years? Has our villain made us more heroic? These are troubling questions if we examine them honestly. Living in the immediate vicinity of the WTC attacks, I saw bravery, heroism and compassion unlike anything I've ever seen before or since. The "post 9/11", "pre-war in Afghanistan" period was a very hopeful one for our country. The following years, however, have been less than hopeful. I don't have the heart to list our lowest moments from this decade but I think it's fair to say that we haven't always honored our fallen brothers and sisters. Going forward, I hope we can honor them by working together to build a kinder, more compassionate country with a transparent and honest political system at it's heart.

"And a grain of his death has scattered it's dismaying seed within me." 
Although I am glad that the world no longer has Osama Bin Laden plotting the deaths of innocent Americans, I am not out celebrating his death. This was the most surreal part of the last few weeks for me. Seeing people taking to the streets to cheer and high-five over his death. Call me a killjoy but these events seem to call for a more sober, measured reaction. We've suffered a tragedy, watched our country fall into political and economic turmoil while we've spent billions and countless human lives chasing an enemy. Upon killing him, we find ourselves resembling him more than we'd like to admit. If we revel in killing, in torturing, in being defined by our enemies, then we are letting them win in the most insidious of ways: by defeating ourselves.
 

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