Like many of my generation, I greeted the death of Osama bin Laden with frantic text messaging. Then tweeting, then emailing and strangely, housekeeping. At three a.m., I turned on a vacuum. Two minutes later, I shut it off. The BBC continued confirming what I had heard hours earlier. He was dead. We had killed him. My people on the other side of the border were in the streets of my nation’s capitol, cheering his death.
Watching them I knew that this summer, I would apply for full Canadian citizenship.
I had just returned from a trip back to America — Seattle, specifically — to celebrate my 28th birthday and eat an Easter brunch with my friends and family and tell them all about my life in Canada and how very much I enjoy it. The night bin Laden’s death was announced I was jetlagged, still on Pacific time. After hearing the news I gave up on sleep entirely.
On the morning of 11 September, 2001, my mother shook me awake very gently, and told me in a soft voice what had happened. She was about to leave for work, and she did not want the television to tell me the news. “Did bin Laden do it?” I asked, sleepily.
“We don’t know yet,” she said. “But it’s likely.”
That year, I was a freshman in university. It was a strange time to start school, and the eagerness with which my class started the next chapter of its life was tempered by the slow but horrific realization of what we were about to do, and what was already being done in our name. I read Pericles’s funeral oration and Augustine’s doctrine of just war. Then I marched against the war. Both wars.
The last fight I had with my high school ex was about the war.
“We don’t need to be in Afghanistan,” I told him. “Or Iraq. Or anywhere. What we need to do is kill bin Laden.”
“That’s assassination,” he said. “We can’t do that.”
I know about the desire for vengeance. I have felt it inside. It is a hollow space at the core of one’s being, and like the Inferno it burns hot at the surface and burns cold in the deep. It waits there quiet as an un-rung bell, and when I occasionally touch it I feel its vibration, hard and dark and empty, calling a congregation that will never gather for a ritual that will never take place. As humans we sometimes suffer strange wounds that can only be healed by another’s blood. It is one of our species’ unique vulnerabilities, one of many prices we pay for sentience. Sometimes, we take the blood. But most of the time, we make art instead.
I watched Inglourious Basterds this morning. It may seem like an odd choice for Mother’s Day, but it was perfect for this week. My friends in Seattle couldn’t believe I had not yet seen it, and neither could my friends in Toronto. So this morning, I watched it. And loved it. It is everything that a Tarantino film can and should be, a statement piece whose final scenes — understandably — could not be written until long after 1998 when the rest of the script came together. But I’m also happy that I waited this long to watch it. It is a different film for me now, after watching the riotous cheers of a new crop of college freshmen stampeding Pennsylvania Avenue, than it would have been had I watched it at the cinema.
Inglourious Basterds is not simply a revenge fantasy. It is not simply an alternate history, or an act of revisionism, or even a meta-film about the medium itself. It is all those things, yes, but more than that it is an acknowledgment of the human desire for revenge. An acknowledgment, and a pardon. Because we do all feel that desire. And if we do not feel it, it is because we have not yet lived, and consequently have not yet been hurt. Our enemies feel it for us as we feel it for them, a passion just as strong as love but projected in reverse, an image seen from behind the screen where we stand waiting with the match for the proper moment to come.
I have always said that I want my government to rise above my baser instincts. I have always said that my government’s job is to be wiser than me because it is larger and stronger than me, and driven by a greater intelligence composed of more minds with longer experience. But this thing we did we did together, all of us, early that morning ten years ago. It was started in our hearts and we have completed the task with our hands, and also with our tax dollars and votes.
It is done, but our people cannot come home. Neither, I suspect, can I.