"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.”
I remember vividly the pull of that emotion in those autumn days ten years ago, the desire to feel something uncomplicated: pure rage or simple thirst for justice. To sing the national anthem, to put your hand on your heart, to fly the flag from your window, felt right and comforting, as if we could find collective refuge in this new and terrifying but refreshingly simple world we had suddenly come to inhabit—a world in which we were attacked, a world in which we must defend ourselves, a world in which bad guys were out there and wanted to do us harm. A place where, on the night bin Laden was finally killed, you could bask in fellowship with the guy on the adjoining bar stool and say, “They got the bastard” and feel like you shared something profound: that you were, for that brief moment, not strangers but countrymen.
But the decade of unceasing war and bloodshed since 9/11 has made me deeply suspicious of that impulse. As right and as exhilarating as that moment at the bar might feel, it also contains something very dark, like a drop of ink in a glass of water. It is the same darkness that converted our national mood of grief and patriotism into ten years of war, that bloomed on the streets of Washington and New York among the crowds who cheered the news of bin Laden’s demise.
It is an irony too often overlooked that the war that grinds on most bloodily isn’t the “dumb war” Bush started in Iraq but the “good war” in Afghanistan, authorized in 2001 by a vote of 98–0 in the Senate, 420–1 in the House and supported by 88 percent of Americans at that time. The war was born of our pure and shared desire for justice. To speak out against bombing and invading Afghanistan, in those days, seemed truly radical, almost an insult to the dead. But in retrospect, maybe it was also right.
I am blessed to have been spared personal loss during 9/11, and it would be callous to begrudge survivors, or anyone, their emotions: people will feel what they will feel. But in the realm of public life we should resist the tug of “bad-guyism.” (It’s no surprise that Friedman couldn’t resist the urge, using the phrase yet again in his first column after bin Laden’s killing.)
We can use the occasion of bin Laden’s death to grasp back for the moment when the world seemed simple, or we can turn away from that impulse. We can say that with his death, we return to the world as our adult eyes see it, shot through with suffering and complexity. We can feel compassion for the thousands of innocents who died by bin Laden’s hand as well as our own, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time in places like Bagram and Baghdad. We can remember that just because there is evil in the world that we are fighting—and bin Laden was a mass murderer and war criminal—that does not mean we are purely righteous. We can reject relativism and still embrace nuance. We can have the courage to speak and act like adults, to put away childish things, to once and for all banish the bad guys from our nightmares.