My first reactions to Osama bin Laden’s death were similar to those of many Americans. I felt glad that a decade-long mission had been accomplished, and I felt that his killing had achieved some measure of justice. Reading celebratory emails from friends still in the United States, I shared some sense of victory, if a little uneasily. I stayed up well past my bedtime to watch the president’s speech. As soon as he finished, I went to sleep, since today would be another Monday, and I had classes to teach.
The morning greeted me with many more emails, news stories, tweets, photos. The small sense of shared victory I had enjoyed the night before began to fade as I saw and heard about celebrations. I went about my day relatively normally today, not too affected by bin Laden’s death or the reaction to it. But I kept checking in, reading and seeing more. And I’ve become more emotional.
I don’t have too many original words to write about bin Laden, the United States, terrorism, and related issues, so let me quote liberally from others. I found all these authors through James Fallows and Ta-Nehisi Coates, among my usual go-tos for help thinking things through.
Summary: It’s not a big event. It might not even be good news for the US, from a long-term perspective.
- It’s not a big event
- Killing bin Laden might make al Qaeda more potent
- The weirdness of President Obama’s speech about the news
- For more information
(The rest of the post fills in those subjects.)
Upon the news of this victory, crowds gathered in front of the White House and at Ground Zero to chant “U.S.A.! U.S.A!” It was as if we’d just won an Olympic hockey game, rather than capped a decade worth of war and recession with a singular act of violence.
“Today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people,” the president declared. “We are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to,” he concluded, after insisting that the execution represents justice. “That is the story of our history, whether it’s the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens; our commitment to stand up for our values abroad, and our sacrifices to make the world a safer place.”
How perverse. President Obama is the leader of a nation in which justice is but a distant dream for millions of residents. He leads a nation that can afford billions of dollars annually for war but cannot feed the nearly 18 million children who lived in homes without food security in 2009. And yet, the Nobel Peace Prize winner can fix his mouth to say that killing a man on the other side of the globe provides proof of America’s exceptionalism.
The gap between rhetoric and reality has long been a defining trait of American life. Lies about our values have shielded us from the brutal facts of our nation ever since we built it on the back of genocide and slavery. But it is in times like these that the dissonance becomes unbearable.
The president says we can do anything we want because we can kill. We could not stop poverty rates from spiraling upward to a record-setting 14.3 percent of Americans in 2009, but we can kill so we are exceptional. One in four black and Latino families live below the poverty line now, and as a result America’s child poverty rate—one in five kids—is the second worst among rich nations, behind Mexico. But we can kill, so we are great.
In The Looming Tower, the Pulitzer-winning history of al-Qaeda and the road to 9/11, author Lawrence Wright lays out how Osama bin Laden’s motivation for the attacks that he planned in the 1990s, and then the September 11 attacks, was to draw the U.S. and the West into a prolonged war—-an actual war in Afghanistan, and a broader global war with Islam.
Osama got both. And we gave him a prolonged war in Iraq to boot. By the end of Obama’s first term, we’ll probably top 6,000 dead U.S. troops in those two wars, along with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans. The cost for both wars is also now well over $1 trillion.
We have also fundamentally altered who we are. A partial, off-the-top-of-my-head list of how we’ve changed since September 11 . . .
- [13 bullet points detailing U.S. government expansions to warrantless seizures, indefinite detentions, torture, spying and eavesdropping on citizens, and more]
I’m relieved that bin Laden is dead. And the Navy SEALs who carried out the harrowing raid that ended his life have my respect and admiration. And for all the massive waste and abuse our government has perpetrated in the name of fighting terrorism over the last decade, there’s something satisfying in knowing that he was killed in a limited, targeted operation based on specific intelligence.
But because of the actions of one guy, we allowed all the bullet points above to happen. That we managed to kill him a decade after the September 11 attacks is symbolically important, but hardly seems worth the celebrations we saw across the country last night. There was something unsettling about watching giddy crowds bounce around beach balls and climb telephone polls last night, as if they were in the lawn seats at a rock festival. Solemn and somber appreciation that an evil man is gone seemed like the more appropriate reaction.
Yes, bin Laden the man is dead. But he achieved all he set out to achieve, and a hell of a lot more. He forever changed who we are as a country, and for the worse. Mostly because we let him. That isn’t something a special ops team can fix.
And James Fallows quoted a reader who wrote in response to him:
I did not find the news heartening, I found it slightly depressing. I support the action to kill OBL, and I believe that the world is a better place w/o him. But I find that reality depressing, and the fact that ‘we’ choose to celebrate his death (there were fireworks in SF) more depressing still. It reminds me how base we (humans) are. I’ve never lost anyone in a terrorist attack, so this is easy for me to say, I know.
Let me, after a day of consideration, echo all these sentiments. Today I am glad Osama bin Laden is no longer alive—but I am unable to forget the world that existed yesterday and still exists today, I see no reason to celebrate his death, and I am disturbed by that response from my countrymen and friends.
I had been meaning to share, before events of the last week, recent events and feelings inspired by two books I’ve read. A couple months ago I read The Looming Tower, a “biography” of Al Qaeda. The book is remarkable for its comprehensive, straightforward account of how Al Qaeda began, how it grew, and what it became in the 1990s. No reader can come away from the book thinking that Osama bin Laden equals Al Qaeda, or that either one is the only principal in 21st-century terrorism. Soon after reading The Looming Tower, I read Columbine, which gives similarly comprehensive treatment to that high school’s massacre, covering the school, the killers, the community, the causes (as well as they can be determined), and the aftermath.
“Reading” both of those as audiobooks during my commutes, I set myself up for an unfortunate experience: Three or four times during Columbine, I began to cry, not loudly, but visibly to any fellow bus riders who happened to glance my way.
Descriptions of kids running away from gunfire, or trying to get their dying friends out of a school erupting with the sounds of explosions, absolutely melted me. Even harder to hear about were the parents collected at the school, kept behind the police perimeter, losing their minds trying to find their kids, desperate to learn that theirs weren’t the ones who had been killed.
[In this space I wrote and deleted four paragraphs about September 11 and me. That’s not what I wanted this post to be about. I’ll get to that eventually, when I’m ready to really cry and write about it.]
September 11 began years of suffering that can only be described by communicators far more skilled than me. New Yorkers experienced heart-wrenching pain that day, and 3,000 families have not been whole since then. Millions of Afghans and Iraqis have lived through similar events every day for nearly a decade. Americans all over the country, and people all around the world, have suffered much less visible and much more insidious violations that will probably never end. Terrorism and counterterrorism live on. Wars, targeted and global, continue. Suffering continues. Pain remains.
Yesterday’s flawlessly executed mission was a long-sought and hard-fought victory for the United States military and intelligence community. It was (probably) a limited strategic victory for the security interests of the country. It was another day of suffering for so, so many. It is fire with fire at its most necessary—and its most futile, since neither fire is anywhere near extinguished.
The last 24 hours have seen city-wide parties across a country.
“Catharsis” is the reason I have most frequently heard today. I don’t understand.
For those who feel victory today, I ask what has been won. What will be better tomorrow?
For those who are happy today, I ask: Why is death—even when it is just—to be celebrated? What does it build, create, or improve?
For those who feel catharsis, who just feel calm and at peace as a result of this, I ask what you will feel tomorrow. What has been made whole? What pain has been undone?