Killing a Man Does Not Testify to National Greatness

Among the many objectionable aspects of President Obama’s announcement that Osama bin Laden had been killed, one in particular sticks in my craw. He said that “today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people.”

First, I dislike the whole idea of “the greatness of our country.” Countries cannot be great. They are abstractions and, as such, they are incapable of acting for good or for evil. Individual residents of a country may be great, and many Americans are great, because, to borrow Forrest Gump’s construction, “greatness is as greatness does.”

The caretakers who comfort the sick and dying are often great. The priests and friends who revive the will to live in those who have lost hope are great. The entrepreneurs who establish successful businesses that better satisfy consumer demands for faster communication, safer travel, fresher food, and countless other goods and services are great.  The scientists and inventors who peer deeper into the nature of the universe and devise technologies to accomplish humane, heretofore impossible feats are great. The artists who elevate the souls of those who hear their music and view their paintings are great.

But mere killing is never great, and those who carry out the killings are not great, either. No matter how much one may believe that people must sometimes commit homicide in defense of themselves and the defenseless, the killing itself is always to be deeply regretted. To take delight in killings, as so many Americans seem to have done in the past day or so, marks a person as a savage at heart. Human beings have the capacity to be better than savages. Oh that more of them would employ that capacity.

Second, anyone can see that the U.S. government will use this particular killing as evidence of its dedication to and capacity for carrying out the noble service of protecting—and, failing that, avenging the deaths of—the American people. (Never mind that trillions of dollars, tens of thousands of deaths, untold destruction of property, vast human misery, and sacrifices of essential liberties in this country went into gaining the proudly proclaimed achievement of killing a single man.) The process has already begun, with former presidents and the mainstream media adding their voices to amplify the government’s official line. Glory to the USA, glory to its hired killers, glory above all to its heroic Great Leader. The whole spectacle is profoundly disgusting. Yet we can see that many Americans have enthusiastically fallen for this trick, dancing in the streets in celebration of a man’s death in faraway Pakistan. Such unseemly behavior is not the stuff of which true greatness is made.

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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