One of the formative events shaping my views of the last decade's American political landscape was watching the 2004 Republican national convention. An expertly staged, supremely manipulative ritual of jingoism and leader-worship, I regarded it with an equal measure of awe and horror.
America's militarism was continuously exploited by speaker after speaker to glorify the commander-in-chief, George W Bush, as a brave and noble warrior for American Greatness. Each mention of war and killing prompted his delirious followers to erupt in the same boisterous crowd-chant: "USA, USA." Bush's opponent (and his supporters), by contrast, were vilified as soft-on-the-terrorists, troop-hating, America-despising weaklings who lacked the stomach to Keep Us Safe.
Typifying all of this was Dick Cheney's vice-presidential acceptance speech:
"As in other times, we are in a war we did not start, and have no choice but to win.
"Firm in our resolve, focused on our mission, and led by a superb commander-in-chief, we will prevail.
"The fanatics who killed some 3,000 of our fellow Americans may have thought they could attack us with impunity, because terrorists had done so previously.
"But if the killers of September 11 thought we had lost the will to defend our freedom, they did not know America, and they did not know George W Bush.
"From the beginning, the president made clear that the terrorists would be dealt with and that anyone who supports, protects or harbors them would be held to account.
"President Bush does not deal in empty threats and half measures. And his determination has sent a clear message …
"Even in this post 9/11 period, Senator Kerry doesn't appear to understand how the world has changed. He talks about leading a 'more sensitive war on terror' …
" … as though al-Qaida will be impressed with our softer side.
"He declared at the Democratic convention that he will forcefully defend America after we have been attacked. My fellow Americans, we have already been attacked …"
[AUDIENCE:] "USA. USA. USA."
[CHENEY:] "But as the President has made very clear, there is a difference between leading a coalition of many nations and submitting to the objections of a few.
"George W Bush will never seek a permission slip to defend the American people."
[AUDIENCE:] "USA. USA. USA."
It went on and on like that, speaker after speaker. The same chant erupted when Bush, in his acceptance speech, declared that ever since 9/11, "I wake up every morning thinking about how to better protect our country. I will never relent in defending America – whatever it takes." It erupted again when he added:
"In Saddam Hussein, we saw a threat. Members of both political parties, including my opponent and his running-mate, saw the threat, and voted to authorize the use of force."
I thought, or at least hoped, that such vulgar crowd celebrations of leader-reverence, jingoism and militarism would not soon be replicated. But on Thursday night, the final night of the Democratic party convention, it was.
It is hard to count how many times a Democratic party speaker stood up proudly to proclaim:
Osama. Bin. Laden. Is. Dead!
Almost every time Bin Laden's scalp was paraded around on its pike – all thanks to the warrior spirit and unflinching courage of our commander-in-chief – the crowd of progressives, liberals and party faithful erupted into a prolonged "USA. USA" chant.
Leading this orgy of chest-beating, we're-more-bellicose-than-you, nationalistic strutting was, ironically, the 2004 GOP's prime victim of it: Democratic Senator John Kerry. Kerry's speech exploited virtually every theme of patriotism and militarism that was used against him eight years ago, and he did so with great efficacy.
Like Obama advocates so often do, Kerry first trumpeted how faithful and loyal Obama is to the Israeli government, and held up the Israeli prime minister as the arbiter of truth and sufficient loyalty:
"'Barack Obama promised always to stand with Israel to tighten sanctions on Iran – and take nothing off the table.
"'Again and again, the other side has lied about where this president stands and what this president has done. But Prime Minister Netanyahu set the record straight – he said, our two countries have 'exactly the same policy' – 'our security cooperation is unprecedented.' When it comes to Israel, I'll take the word of Israel's prime minister over Mitt Romney any day."
Kerry, to the delight of the crowd, strongly insinuated that Romney harbors disrespect for the sacred American troops (that is: our brave men and women in uniform):
"And let me say – let me say something else – let me say something else, no nominee for president should ever fail in the midst of a war to pay tribute to our troops overseas in his acceptance speech.
"Mitt Romney – Mitt Romney was talking about America. They are on the front lines every day defending America and they deserve our thanks."
[AUDIENCE:] "USA! USA! USA!"
And, most pointedly of all, he milked the Bin Laden killing for everything it was worth, and then some:
"And after more than – after more than 10 years without justice for thousands of Americans murdered on 9/11, after Mitt Romney said it would be naive to go into Pakistan to pursue the terrorists, it took President Obama, against the advice of many, to give that order and finally rid this earth of Osama bin Laden.
"Ask Osama bin Laden is he is better-off now than he was four years ago."
Yeah: ask Osama bin Laden if he's better off – if you can find his corpse where our commander-in-chief dumped it: at the bottom of the ocean. USA! USA!
For the moment, leave aside one's views on the justness and legality of the Bin Laden killing. (For reasons adeptly set forth here by international law professor Kevin Jon Heller, I really don't understand how one can have a favorable opinion on that without actually knowing what happened, which may be the reason John Kerry is so insistent that nobody try to find out.) Whether or not one is still stimulated when thinking about that exciting raid, there is obvious meaning in how central it has become to the political identity of America and, especially, the self-esteem of the Democratic party.
It is a truly potent indicator that this grand achievement has become the greatest source of nationalistic pride. Americans once found national purpose – justification for their belief in their own exceptionalism – from inventing new life-improving technologies, or putting a man on the moon, or advancing the cause of equality, or vanquishing the mighty Nazi military machine, or enshrining unparalleled protections for core liberties in the constitution.
Now, many Americans find it in the heroic ability to hunt someone down who is in hiding, pummel his skull full of bullets even as he lay dying on the ground, and then dump his corpse into the ocean. That such actions are the new source of American pride, vindication of national greatness, was the claim made by President Obama when he first announced the killing:
"But tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to. That is the story of our history."
If one wants to mount a political defense of all of this – that it is about time the Democrats gave the GOP a taste of its own medicine, that Kerry, in particular, has the right to exact vengeance, that anything is justified to win the election, etc – that's fine. I have no real quarrel with, or interest in, that perspective. In so many ways – political adeptness, party solidarity, effective exploitation of national security for political gain, media favorability, message discipline – the two parties have experienced a radical role reversal in the matter of a few short years, and it's understandable why one is happy about that if one's overarching political concern is Obama's re-election.
But the collective bloodlust on display over the last week, especially Thursday night, was nothing short of creepy. Even in those instances in which state killing is justified and necessary, it ought to be a sombre and regrettable affair (as many Democrats righteously argued when some attendees at a GOP debate cheered Texas Governor Rick Perry's touting of his execution record). Boastful, raucous, nationalistic crowd-chanting at every single mention of someone's corpse, even when that someone is Osama bin Laden, is warped.
But, more importantly, it's a depressing symbol of America's political culture. The premise seems to be that – aside from this specific corpse and the others the president has piled up – there is little else for ordinary Americans to celebrate now when it comes to the search for nationalistic achievement, purpose and greatness among their political leadership. That this dark premise appears valid is what is most disturbing of all.
UPDATE: As Gawker's pseudonymous writer Mobutu Sese Seko notes in an excellent review of the night's festivities, Joe Biden "laid it on especially thickly when it came to talking about whacking Osama bin Laden". Among other things, the vice president crowed that "Obama is our president because he always has the courage to make the tough decisions." Of the kill order: "He said, do it – and justice was done!" And then:
"And he also knew – he also knew the message we had to send around the world: if you attack innocent Americans, we will follow you to the end of the earth.
[AUDIENCE:] "USA! USA! USA! USA!"
He further suggests that it may not be "justice" that is achieved by "a double-tap to the brain of a sclerotic masturbating whitehair and his family, in the dead of night, by trained killers." Rather, he argues, "justice" likely entails – following the Allied and Israeli example of how Nazi war criminals were treated – a trial, with evidence of guilt shown to the world, and a deliberative punishment then meted out.
Again, though, regardless of one's views on that question, there is a world of difference between approving of the Bin Laden hit, on the one hand, and gathering together to chant nationalistic slogans and feel pulsating crowd-based power from it, on the other.
UPDATE II: I believe I just saw one of the best videos ever: Gawker's John Cook spent several days asking numerous Democratic luminaries at the convention about Obama's kill list and whether they would trust Mitt Romney to decide which Americans should be extra-judicially assassinated. Other than Bill Press, none reacted well, and it is really worth watching.