These last few days, I have been on a trip to attend a U.S. Army Chaplains training conference in Scottsdale, Arizona. I have been in hotels, airports, and restaurants in my military uniform, sometimes with other Army Chaplains, but often on my own. For these several days, I have had an experience happen over and over.
Everyone wants to ask me what I think about the recent death of Osama bin Laden.
At breakfast, at lunch, at dinner. In the grocery store picking up a forgotten essential, in the lobby of the hotel, on the plane flying here. People, men and women, come up to me, and ask me some variation on the following question…
“So, what does a military man think about the fact that bin Laden is dead?”
The answer I’ve been giving is that it really does not change anything… or if it does change anything, it only means that we are at a greater risk of a terrorist attack now than we were last Sunday afternoon. Osama bin Laden was a financier and a theoretician for Al Qaeda, but he was not the operational commander. The terrorist network now has many operational commanders, in the many different Al Qaeda affiliate organizations around the world. He was not directly involved in operational planning as far as anyone can tell, and likely was just trying to remain covert and alive. While it may have a long-term effect on Al Qaeda, we cannot know what that long term effect may be… and in the short term I think it has made increased attempts of terrorist attacks on U.S. interests more likely, not less.
When I say something like this to someone in the grocery store or the hotel lobby, they just seem to look at me, uncomprehending. It is as if they were looking for me to validate the feelings they seem to be having that this is some great victory, that it signals the end of the global war we are currently in, or that it means we are all now “safe” in some way we were not before. When I do not validate their feelings, it seems to deflate them. Sometimes they walk away with a dejected look, sometimes they seem to get very uncomfortable, and sometimes they just cannot connect with what I am saying.
One guy took to arguing with me about it…
Hope can be a dangerous thing when it is unrealistic. As a military chaplain, often my job is to bring hope into places and spaces where hope is lacking. Yet if that hope is not realistic, it can cause even greater damage than if it was not there in the first place.
Have you ever had a time in your life when, amidst a time of failure, loss, or challenge you came upon some reason to feel hope, only to have those hopes dashed by the final reality of that failure, loss, or challenge? Unrealistic hopes get past our guards in ways few other things do. I know that some of my greatest heartaches in my love-life come from times, amidst arguments and disagreements, I thought for a short time that we were working things out… that things “were getting better”… only to find out that it was not to be.
This is my worry for our nation right now… that the death of Osama bin Laden is leading to some unrealistic hopes. Hopes that this means the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (not to mention the other places we have troops) are about to end. Hopes that this means the end of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups being a threat to our safety. Hopes that this means that all of our troops can now come home, and this new military pattern of cyclical deployments can end. Hopes that this means we can finally attach meaning to all of the sacrifices, the deaths and the costs of these last ten years, and write the history books. Hopes that this means so many different things… many of which I have heard expressed in these conversations these past few days.
I worry what it will mean when those hopes that are alive in so many right now prove to be unrealistic… when it becomes clear that the death of one man, no matter who that man was, will not change the world that we now live in so quickly.
For few things are more dangerous that unrealistic hopes.
Yours in faith,