We are hearing a lot of things about what Osama bin Laden was. Perhaps we haven't heard this: He was the man that laid bare the soul of America, revealing some aspects we'd rather not see.
This was true with his devastating attack on Sept. 11, 2001. And perhaps even more so in his own death a decade later.
In both cases, at least from my overseas vantage point, we were exposed as a people who were perhaps just as vengeful, and (worse, in our minds) just as insecure as the people elsewhere in the world whom we call uncivilized and "savage" when they behave in similar ways.
The chants and jubilation, flag waving, crude sign flashing and giddy joy that spontaneously spread across America as news of bin Laden's death was released Sunday night and into Monday at first made me uncomfortable. I felt a bit ashamed that my countrymen were cheering death.
I wanted them to have a certain type of dignity and class ... that they would display what we believe is a special American respect for life. I wanted them to show that we were not like the people who danced and cheered in Somalia when a downed pilot's body was dragged through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993. ... or like the hate-driven extremists and militants around the world who rejoice in the death of their enemies.
What people do
I was uncomfortable until I realized that my countrymen were being perfectly normal human beings. They were responding like people who have been hurt by tragedy and injustice do when they get a measure of revenge or justice against their persecutors.
They were responding like people who have been belittled and humilated do when something gives them back a bit of their sense of dignity and honor.
They were responding like people do everywhere in the world in similar circumstances;
Problem is, we aren't supposed to be like people everywhere.
I was uncomfortable because I had been programmed to believe, like most Americans, that we were different. Exceptional, some say.
We are a nation founded on principles like none other, so the thinking goes. We follow the rule of law. "We are a Christian nation," so we value life and justice. (speaking of faith ...).
We believe we are more generous, more brave, more forgiving, more industrious, more peaceful, more democratic, more principle-driven, more law-abiding ...
And because of all these exceptional things, the logic continues, we became the most powerful nation on earth. God blessed America.
Looking in the mirror
Seeing yourself as distinctly different from the rest of the world allows you to distance yourself from their pain and anger. It allows you to write off their suffering and needs as less basic and legitimate than your own.
But the logic falls apart when we are obliged to see how much we are like other nations and peoples ... when we are obliged to see how unexceptional we are. And if there is one thing that bin Laden may have done for us is to hold a mirror up to our faces. He has shown us -- if we care to pay attention -- what we really look like.
I saw it yesterday. Fists and teeth clenched, "We got that SOB," one baseball fan screamed as he left the ballpark Sunday night. Another, at Times Square in New York, waved his American flag with a wide-eyed frenzy that one might have mistaken for an anti-American protest in Palestine or Iran.
Others just cheered and chanted "USA, USA, USA ... " as if we had just won a hockey gold medal at the Olympics.
But this was no game. This was life and death.
Not only was it about bin Laden, but also about the 3,000 people who perished in the attack in 2001. Still more, it was about the hundreds of thousands of people who have died since that time. Soldiers, militants, civilians. Americans, Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis ...
Bin Laden and others like him killed, as people do around the world, because they come from a lineage that had felt injustice and humiliation and that had come to blame America and the West. They sought vengeance and justice through blood and death.
While few of us would argue about the justice and utility of bin Laden's death, the cycle continued Sunday night. This was not a reason for joy. There was no victory. It was another turn in the sad cycle of death that certainly did not end when his body was dumped in the ocean.
But for millions of Americans this has been a time to celebrate, a time for restored pride -- just as September 11 had been a decade earlier for some who had resented Western world domination.
Look in the mirror.
View from a distance
Sometimes things are clearer when we take a step back.
Since Sept. 11, 2001 I have been keenly aware that there is something different about following world events from outside the United States. I came to understand long ago that there was something I would never quite share with my countrymen who, from that side of the Atlantic, had lived through the shocking destruction of the twin towers in New York.
After September 11, when we felt threatened and weakened and humiliated, we began to act like other nations we once looked down on. We were vulnerable and afraid.
And so we became less democratic, less law-abiding, less concerned with human life, less Christian, if you will ...
As our soul was laid bare, our true core beliefs became more and more visible: power and force and the wealth it takes to get them -- not laws, justice, relationships and cooperation -- are what makes one right and safe in this world.
Maintaining power and keeping our safety, then, was all that mattered, no matter who we had to detain illegally, torture, bomb, invade ... no matter how many innocent civilians might die ... no matter how many soldiers would be sent off to war.
We had to win. We had to get this man who had made us feel weak and who had continued to threaten us and humiliate us with his grainy videotapes from supposed mountain hideouts.
Why it matters today
Again, we are not worse than any other people. But we do have more power and thus the ability to act out our core values. And if we don't understand who we truly are, how can we begin to figure out how to navigate the confusing conflict between our interests and our values we are facing in today's quickly changing international environment?
How will we communicate the reasons we will bomb and seek to overthrow one dictator trying to crush democracy while ignoring similar actions elsewhere. Will we keep talking about how special and virtuous we are?
Will we be surprised when we're called hypocrites when we don't seem to care what happens in Burkina Faso or Ivory Coast?
Will we be surprised when the insurgents we support today turn against us tomorrow?
Will we continue wondering why no one else sees us as altruistic supporters of democracy and freedom for their own sake?
The sooner we see ourselves more realistically, perhaps even humbly acknowledging when we have taken part in injustice instead of clinging to and extolling ourselves with the self-righteous city-on-a-hill image we like so much, the sooner we may be able to construct true relationships of trust in those parts of the world where there are so few.
If this is to happen, we need to take the blinders off. The first step is realizing that you and the rest of the world are not so different. So by helping us see ourselves more clearly, perhaps bin Laden, of all people, may actually help us become more like the nation we aspire to be.