Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Death of Osama bin Laden: Cheering in the Streets

As I was about to call it a night at 1:30, still feeling the effects of an unexplainable warm feeling upon hearing of the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of Navy SEAL Team 6, I got a message from a friend of mine. He was asking me what I thought of the celebration being televised on all of the major networks, with America's youth waving flags and chanting "USA! USA!" I didn't know, but my friend said that he felt a bit uneasy about it; that something about it felt off. I had thought the same thing.

To try to explicate my emotions right now—never mind in the immediate minutes and hours following the announcement—is impossible. It simply has not registered yet. I think back to that sunny Tuesday when I was a sophomore in high school and being called to an emergency meeting. The rumors flying around, the announcement from the headmaster, the blurry passage of time for the rest of the day. It had taken a long time for the significance of this day to settle into my brain. I distinctly remember sobbing in the back of my mother's car at the end of September upon the sudden realization that things could never be the same again.

So I certainly understood the reaction from many of my co-generationalists. I would be lying if I said that I did not have a warm fuzziness inside of me as I climbed into bed late last night after recording my podcast. As my friend Craig Milch pointed out to me, it is almost as if Newton's Law has fulfilled itself 10 years later: the same emptiness and fear that I struggled with as a teenager was now being replaced with jubilation and a hope that things could possibly go back to the way they were. Who wouldn't want to celebrate that?

But my pragmatism tempered my naivete. It would be great if we could take back the PATRIOT Act, if we could leave Iraq and Afghanistan, if we could close Gitmo. The simple fact, however, is that we will not do any of those things. When those airliners crashed into the World Trade Center almost ten years ago, the United States and the rest of the world crossed a threshold from which there was no turning back. The fact that Osama bin Laden's body is beginning to rot at the bottom of the ocean as I type these words will not change that.

In a world with few tangible successes for peers in my generation, it would make sense to seize a moment like this to celebrate. We came of age during the War on Terror, in which bin Laden was public enemy number one. It is similar to the reaction to the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" in which the U.S. was able to defeat the Soviets in the midst of a fearful Cold War, a recession and a disappointing president. The key difference, obviously, is that one was a celebration of a sports victory and the other of the violent end of a human being. This is the origination of the uneasiness.

Some have called the celebrations disgusting and compared them to those we saw in certain parts of the world following 9/11. They share the same fundamentals: at their cores, both are celebrations of the death of human beings, it just depends which side you identify with. But the human psyche is too complicated to simply paint these celebrations with such a broad brush. The emotions involved with revenge and a feeling of some kind of karmic justice are complex. Again, it depends which side of an issue (and, too often, the world) you are on. It is too easy—not to mention a bit dishonest—to call one reaction appropriate and the other uncalled for. In a perfect world, no one would celebrate the death of another member of mankind.

But as the history of man has proven time and again, we do not live in a perfect world. Every generation has their version of the boogeyman—for our grandfathers it was Hitler, for our fathers it was the Soviets, for us it is terrorists. When Hitler's death was announced, no amount of jubilation could cloud the fact that the world had been irrevocably changed. The fall of the Berlin Wall did not see a sudden burst of warm relations between the Kremlin and the West. So it is with the death of bin Laden. Long after fish have picked his bones clean his legacy will continue to shape the way the world operates and that is nothing to celebrate.

Photo - A throng of revelers gathers outside the White House following the announcement of Osama bin Laden's death. (Flickr via thisisbossi)

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