A curious word crept into the dialogue this week, as news outlets fed the voracious public appetite for every last detail of the secret raid that killed Osama bin Laden. It is "elite."
Indeed, the word itself is elite, because media outlets have selected it above all others to describe SEAL Team 6, the unit of Navy SEALs who descended on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan this week.
In an article detailing the SEALs’ unbelievably rigorous training, The New York Times called SEAL Team 6 “the elite of the elite.” A Washington Post blog under the headline “Navy SEALs who killed Osama bin Laden are from the elite ‘Team 6,’” contained the following references: “The elite team of Navy SEALs”; “They are the elite within the elite”; and “members are not allowed to talk about the elite group at all.” FoxNews.com told of “an elite group of tricked out Navy SEALs with incredible high-tech weapons.”
The "Merriam-Webster Dictionary" definition of “elite” includes “the choice part” and “the best of a class.” Synonyms include “A-list,” “aristocracy,” “best,” “choice” and “upper crust.” What’s worse, it has French origins.
The term has enjoyed such a renaissance this week that it’s worth recalling just how slanderous it was considered in the political arena. Politicians are fond of recklessly accusing others of being elite. At the same time, lawmakers consider it very important that no one accuses them of being elite.
In an NBC interview during the 2008 presidential election, Brian Williams posed the question to GOP presidential nominee John McCain and his vice presidential running mate Sarah Palin (who would later be the subject of a book called “The Persecution of Sarah Palin: How the Elite Media Tried to Bring Down a Rising Star”):
Brian Williams: Who is a member of the elite?
Sarah Palin: Oh, I guess just people who just think that they’re better than anyone else… So anyone who thinks that they are, I guess, better than anyone else, that’s my definition of elitism.
Williams: So, it’s not education, it’s not income-based?
Palin: Anyone who thinks they’re better than someone else.
Williams: A state of mind? It’s not geography?
Palin: Course not.
John McCain: I know where a lot of them live.
Williams: Where’s that?
McCain: Well, in our nation’s capital and New York City. I’ve seen it. I’ve lived there. I know the town. I know what a lot of these elitists are. The ones that she never went to a cocktail party with in Georgetown. I’ll be very frank with you, who think that they can dictate what they believe to America rather than let Americans decide for themselves.
Especially with the 2012 election around the corner, it’s unlikely that SEAL Team 6’s daring success in Pakistan will start an American love affair with elitism and the practice, preparation and training that term implies.
There’s an American tradition of celebrating the spontaneous, even if we may sometimes misremember our history to suit our own purposes and preferences. For example, despite the spontaneous-sounding name, the famed Minutemen of the American Revolution –- so named because they would be ready to fight at a moment’s notice –- were an elite force selected by superior officers.
It’s a tradition that manifests itself each election season in the tug-of-war between two competing (and often oversimplified) views: That the most important tasks require intensive preparation versus the belief that anyone can do the job.
Still, the widespread positive use of “elite” this past week is first time in recent memory that the country has united around a single description of success. Of course, the secret raid ordered by President Obama was anything but spontaneous. To celebrate the death of bin Laden is to acknowledge the importance of preparation, study, skill and, yes, exclusivity. As the Times story points out, “about 80 percent of the candidates do not make it” through SEAL “hell week,” and that’s not even the end of it. Years of brutal training follow, as about half of the remaining candidates are trimmed from the ranks.
No one would have wished for a ragtag, thrown-together team to go in after bin Laden. What’s worth celebrating is that not just anyone could do it, and that those in charge had the good sense to select the elite group of tricked-out Navy SEALs who could.