In the case of dying societies, our symbols are all threats. Growing societies have creative goals, while dying societies have destructive ones.
Our quest to destroy Osama bin Laden fits an old symbolic pattern. We think our disease cannot be our own, and our problems cannot be caused by our own incompetence, laziness, cowardice or dysfunction, so we externalize them into a symbol.
Satan, Hitler, Mao, Emmanuel Goldstein, Edgar Friendly, Stalin, Gordon Gekko, Mephistopheles, Beherit, Beelzebub, Belial, Abraxas, Judas, Randy Weaver, David Koresh, Ted Kaczynski, Josef Mengele, Bernie Madoff.
They represent the darkness in us that we seek to destroy. If only it were so easy as a tangible symbol! (This is not a claim that these were not bad people, just that they are symbols of broader problems.)
We took out Osama bin Laden and now we’ve relieved ourselves of another Great Satan, which means we come home to the empty house and stare deep into the mirror, straight into our own existential emptiness.
We know who the bad guys are; we want to be the good guys. But what’s our purpose? Go back to our boring, soulless, repetitive jobs? Buy more stuff? Enforce diversity on the uncontacted tribes of the Amazon basin? Install air fresheners near every turd, uplifting music near ever tragedy, and safety instructions and warning tags on every sharp object?
On some level, I’m glad to see someone who wanted us dead, dead. Surely the most basic animal instinct carries us through there. But on another level, I am sad to see a symbol go. Because now the hollowness echoes even more menacingly.