Since Osama bin Laden’s death last week, a part of the national conversation has been dedicated to determining how “we” are supposed to feel. It’s a dilemma. What emotions are appropriate this kind of event? Ambivalence? Relief? Joy? Satisfaction? Perhaps more interestingly, the question of how to feel has often been framed as an accusation. That is, it’s seemed quite common to hear people asking: “What emotions are inappropriate for this kind of event?” in an effort to disavow certain sets of reactions. I wonder why accusations of emotional immaturity and wrongheaded patriotism have been heaped with such vehemence upon crowds of White House and Times Square “OBL” revelers. And I want to suggest that the narrative function of United 93 is in part to give us fictional space to experience these emotions without having to avow them.
I don’t mean to say that bare-chested chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” were the only way to go. But at the same time it seems less productive to declare that some combination of joy/pride/patriotism was wrong than to ask why we may have been feeling these ways in the first place. To do so, it might be useful to consider the last moments of Paul Greengrass’s 2006 film United 93, when the doomed passengers finally mount their assault on the hijackers. The fictional representation of the pain and death of terrorists seems to provide a narrative opening for violent—but, I think ultimately human—emotions. Is it equally wrong to root for the deaths of terrorists in this fictional space? Can we forgive ourselves for forgetting that these were real people, and that we wish them ill in this scene? Is the film providing us with an outlet for the violent feelings that we want to disavow? Or am I the only one who was—despite my own (mainstream, middle-road) ambivalence and thoughtful relief during the President’s speech last Sunday—rooting for the passengers in that last scene?
In the social media tsunami that followed the announcement “OBL’s” death, two quotes were often repeated on Facebook walls and Twitter feeds. The first comes from Mark Twain: “I've never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure.” The second was at first attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.” King never said this, and thanks to some rushed detective work, Megan McArdle of The Atlantic initially suggested that the quote had been maliciously fabricated. To her credit, she apologized the following day after it was revealed that the misattribution occurred by accident. Here’s McArdle in her mea culpa blog post:
It turns out I was far too uncharitable in my search for a motive behind the fake quote. I assumed that someone had made it up on purpose. I was wrong.
The point is that the Internet was a significant rhetorical battleground for those rushing to offer, judge, and counter-judge emotional reactions to the death of Al Qaeda’s longtime leader.
But the thing about watching a movie is that it’s far less likely that someone will judge you for feeling a certain way with respect to characters, even when those characters are wrapped up in a narrative that claims to be “based on a true story.” Greengrass’s film gives us the illusion of fidelity to the actual events on United Flight 93 when no one knows what exactly happened in those final moments. It tells us what we want to know, even though we suppress the desire to know it: the passengers fought back and managed to inflict pain on their captors before the crash. In the imagined battle for the cockpit, we feel freer to root for a passenger to deliver a fire extinguisher to the plexus of a fictional terrorist. These things happened, and yet didn’t happen. Because of their portrayal in film, we can avow our desire to see the death of the terrorists, and then disavow that same desire when the lights come on.