May 10, 2011
To the Members of the 112th Congress:
The attackers would come out of the forest, sweeping across a settlement or isolated homestead, killing and burning as they went. Depending on their strength, the attackers might move far into settled territory or simply withdraw after the destruction of one settler family. But sooner or later they would disappear into the wilderness from which they had come.
The settlers fortified their homes and formed militias to defend themselves. But the attackers struck without warning and, if they withdrew quickly, could avoid the organized defense of the settlers. It became necessary, then, to attack the attackers. They seldom stood and fought in the European way. They preferred ambush and skirmish, so the settlers fought this way too. They also attacked their enemy’s settlements, destroying crops and inhabitants, old and young, male and female. Sometimes the enemy could be found not too far away. Other times it was necessary to track them deep into the wilderness.
This was a brutal business, not the almost gentlemanly endeavor that organized eighteenth-century warfare aspired to. Its necessity did not disguise its brutality or even excuse all instances of it.
This kind of fighting began shortly after the founding of the first settlements and continued episodically for 100 years or so after the founding of the nation. That such fighting was part of the American experience and has become part of it again can tell us something about “who we are,” a phrase President Obama has used more than once when discussing the killing of bin Laden.
First, those in frontier settlements open to attack had an immediate experience of perhaps the most basic account we offer of ourselves. We join together for our common defense and common good, since no individual or single family is alone sufficient to achieve such ends. The frontier militia consisting of all able-bodied men was a direct expression of this idea, embodying in a more effective form the right of every individual to self-defense. More broadly, we hold, all legitimate government rests on the same idea. The government has only the authority that we give it.
Much has changed in the more than 200 years since the founding of the United States, but this elemental idea about the relationship of citizens to their government has not changed. Those who killed bin Laden carried weapons but were armed above all with the authority of the people of the United States. That is what dignified their violence and distinguished it from the brutality authored by their target.
The killing of bin Laden was not only authorized; it was also just. It may turn out that bin Laden was still involved in active plotting against the United States. If so, his killing was an act of self-defense, no less necessary and just than the raids Americans carried out against their enemies in the forested wilderness long ago.
But whether or not bin Laden was plotting against us, his death was still just. It was an act of revenge; and revenge, giving someone what he deserves, is a form of justice. We may hope that bin Laden’s death will discourage others from continuing his work, but that was not the point of killing bin Laden. Revenge, even more than self-defense, is an assertion of self-worth. Its principal audience is not those on whom vengeance falls, but those in whose name vengeance is carried out. It is their statement above all to themselves that they are not the sort to be affronted or assaulted. “The world is what it is,” the poet has written, “and those who are nothing or allow themselves to become nothing have no place in it.” Those who take revenge testify that they are something rather than nothing. The more dogged and unrelenting the pursuit in the wilderness, the more spectacular its culmination, the greater is the testimony of who they are.
The good of revenge requires something more elemental still. Taking revenge takes courage. It took courage to authorize the attack. It took courage to carry it out. Courage is perhaps the most elemental virtue but without it, there can be no others. It is what holds an individual as well as a nation together in the face of life’s dangers. Done in our name, with our authority, the killing of bin Laden should encourage us for the dangers we yet face.