Wednesday, May 18, 2011

This Is Not About Osama bin Laden

Now that the dust has begun to settle...

I'll get my own opinion out of the way first: I do not celebrate death, but I'll admit that I don't particularly mind that Osama Bin Laden is dead. Having disclosed that, please join me in letting go all of the arguments that you've given or heard about whether this killing was right or wrong, and allow me to introduce an educational perspective.

I've only subbed for one class during which students brought up bin Laden's death, but the brief time the subject was in the air was almost enlightening.

"See, there he is," one student said to his neighbors while gesturing toward his computer screen.

"Eww" and, "That's fake," were the responses, while a faint laughter spread among those nearby.

When I looked, I saw a photo of bin Laden's head with wounds of all types; a gunshot, bruises, dirt rashes, scrapes, and crude lacerations. Fresh blood was strewn about his face and embedded in his scars — there was a prominent gash from the bullet's impact. The photo was, of course, a fake, but one that someone had put a fair amount of effort into.

"Close that," I promptly said.

The student did and I reminded him to focus on a project he had to do. I can't at this point remember exactly what the next student said, but it carried a clear message of, "We're still giddy that he's dead. We're the victors and deserve to revel in his suffering and death."

His tone invited me to comment, with hopes that I would agree and the implication that I would be unpatriotic if I didn't. I firmly insisted that I would not discuss such a sensitive issue while in the role of a teacher and managed to stifle their desire to continue talking about it, as well. To my pleasure, it did not come up again and no more computer screens strayed from Microsoft Word that period.

We are perpetuating a cultural viewpoint from which an immutable line is drawn between black and white. This line is drawn between "us" and "them." In determining whether this murder was "good" or "bad," all that these students felt they needed to consider was whether the victim was with us or against us. This ethnocentrism is so powerful that looking at a gruesome photograph of a gunshot victim was a boost to victorious pride; I don't think they even felt like they were looking at a human.

When bin Laden's death, and the related unquestioned hatred, is at the forefront of my mind, I am not worried about whether those who wish us death will be further inflamed, I am not thinking about how 9/11 victims' family members could potentially find relief in justice, I am trying to think of a time in human history when the idea that "we" are always right no matter what has done anything but usurp cultural progress.

When 13 year-old students find joy in another's blood, and I can reasonably attribute their reaction to a culturally ingrained line dividing black from white, we are not teaching the next generation to be any better than ours, we are teaching them to hate.

I want to think that if I were to ask any of my friends or colleagues, "Do you want your children to grow up thinking that unquestioned hatred is acceptable?" they would answer, "No, of course not."

(Related: A post by a friend and new blogger about bin Laden and a post by Jonah Lehrer about revenge.)

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