"A major victory has been scored by the good guys against the baddest of the bad guys.” —Geraldo Rivera on Fox News, announcing Osama bin Laden’s death
In the wake of 9/11, the phrase “bad guys” infiltrated our national conversation, and its continued prevalence serves as a testament to the ways the trauma has warped our national character. In the days after the attack, Dick Cheney warned the world that “people have to choose between the US and the bad guys.” Tom Friedman’s columns from that fall repeatedly invoke the term. “From here forward,” he wrote on September 28, 2001, “it’s the bad guys who need to be afraid every waking moment. The more frightened our enemies are today, the fewer we will have to fight tomorrow.”
But the term outlived the immediate aftermath. As Iraq descended into insurgency and civil war, Newt Gingrich said that the “key to defeating the bad guys is having enough good guys who are Iraqis.” Everyone from Madeleine Albright to John Kerry to Joe Biden adopted the term as well. In a 2009 appearance on Face the Nation Defense Secretary Gates talked of choking off “potential recruits for the bad guys.” And last summer General Petraeus told a Congressional hearing that “you have to have contact with bad guys to get intelligence on bad guys.”
When President Obama announced the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” he quoted a Special Forces soldier, who described a fellow soldier this way: “He’s big. He’s mean. He kills lots of bad guys. No one cared that he was gay.” Understandably, the line got lots of laughs. The source of the humor was the confounding of stereotypes, but it was the invocation of “bad guys,” with its blunt simplicity, that made the joke work.
The phrase is self-consciously playful but also insidious. An adult who invokes it is expressing a layered set of propositions. What “bad guys” says, roughly, is this: “I’m an adult who has considered the nature of the moral universe we live in and concluded that it really is black and white. I’ve decided that my earliest, most childlike conception of heroes and villains is indeed the accurate one, which only later came to be occluded by nuance and wishy-washy, bleeding-heart self-doubt. I reject that more complicated, mature conception as false. I embrace the child’s vision of the world.”
“Bad guys” was a phrase that channeled our rawest emotions in the wake of 9/11, emotions that we collectively mythologize. We recall the profound solidarity we felt after 9/11 as noble and righteous, something to gaze back on with nostalgia. That was the idea behind Glenn Beck’s so-called 9/12 Project, and the theme of the president himself at a bipartisan dinner for members of Congress at the White House the day after bin Laden was killed. “Last night,” he said, “as Americans learned that the United States had carried out an operation that resulted in the capture and death of Osama bin Laden…we experienced the same sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11. We were reminded again that there is a pride in what this nation stands for, and what we can achieve, that runs far deeper than party, far deeper than politics.”