Remember That Night

Osama bin Laden, from ABC news.

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The blogosphere and the Twittersphere and the entire social media landscape are all, well, atwitter with critiques of people’s reactions to the assassination of Osama bin Laden.

Should we have cheered?

Was it appropriate to chant “U-S-A! U-S-A!” at a baseball game?

What about the crowds—college students, mostly—who went racing to the White House?

One thing is sure: We are either having a hard time handling this national security success; or we are having too easy a time questioning how other people are handling it.

I myself heard about the news along with everyone else. I heard there was going to be an emergency national security announcement from the President, turned on CNN and waited. A friend in the media texted to tell me the smart money was on the death of Osama bin Laden. And I started hoping he was right. And, well, how about we stop right there for a second?

I hoped bin Laden was dead.

Part of this was relief: an emergency national security announcement from the President of the United States, on a Sunday night, conjured all sorts of bad thoughts: a nuclear accident, a pending asteroid strike, the volcano at Yellowstone, an all-but certain terrorist attack, Japan was about to sink the dollar… who knew?

Stacked up against these other automatic, fearful imaginings, the death of bin Laden looked awfully good in comparison. But the idea of a dead bin Laden also triggered a lot of other emotions: relief, that the living symbol of Al Qaeda’s greatest success—and America’s worst defeat—had been eliminated; relief, that the many thousands of Americans who lost a loved one on 9/11 might feel some measure of justice had been done.

I watched the news in a kind of hypnotic state. Each new detail that emerged fascinated me. I read the posts on my twitter account during lulls and commercials. I even tweeted a few. I felt happy that the President I voted for had come through in such a big, big way. But I stayed clear of posting any of my interpretations about what we might call the nationwide, public reaction: the ballpark chants, including here in Philadelphia, or the college kids descending on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Deep down, my own internal reaction was mixed.

I’ve never been a pro-death penalty guy. But here I had to acknowledge that a bullet to the head offered some advantages over due process. The security nightmare and media coverage surrounding any trial for a living Osama bin Laden would have consumed the national psyche. How to try him would have become an occasion for unending debate. We, as a country, it seems, will certainly enjoy an easier road this way—with bin Laden adrift somewhere in the ocean, food for fish, rather than awaiting his day in court.

I stayed up till close to 2 a.m., watching the news accounts, and felt increasingly solemn. And over the last 48 hours, I monitored all the chatter about how we should feel and how we should act. On Monday night, my wife told me she was glad to hear that I had mixed feelings about the whole thing. “I’ve been afraid to say anything about it at work,” she said, “because people are so happy. And I’m glad they got him but…I just don’t feel it’s appropriate to be happy about a death. You know? For me, it’s not appropriate.”

It was that last bit I liked so much, the “for me” distinction. Because this is one situation in which any reaction, short of one that breaks the law, seems understandable. September 11 remains a singular event in American history. So how should we react to the death of the man who inspired that singular, awful event?

I can’t presume to know.

Some have pointed out that dancing in the streets creates a kind of tit for tat dynamic between Us and Them; and we all know where Us and Them has gotten us over the years.

I’m sympathetic to this view.

Heck, I even agree with it.

But our reactions are just that—instinctive, not considered; the product of circumstance, not deliberation.

Consider those college students who showed up cheering and waving flags outside the White House. I initially felt most put off by their reaction. They were so young when 9/11 happened, I thought. They can’t really understand it. But with some time to consider it, it seems those students were out in the street precisely because they retained that childhood memory of September 11.

The hysteria in the months and years after 9/11, the fear mongering and near “certainty” that some day another, even worse attack would be carried out, somewhere, anywhere in the U.S.A., marked their childhoods. Bin Laden was the real-life Lord Valdemort of the Harry Potter-generation.  In this context, their gleeful, “ding dong the wicked witch is dead” joy at the news of bin Laden’s death is entirely understandable. For them.

Similarly, I suspect the crowd at the baseball game wanted some way, particularly in that communal setting, of acknowledging the news together. What they seized on was that chant: “U-S-A!”

This initial wave of celebration really was just that—an initial reaction. The celebration, as near as I can tell, lasted for just one night.

When I went to work Monday morning, the day after bin Laden’s death, it was nothing like September 12, 2001. On that day, it was impossible to escape the notion that somehow, in the parlance of the moment, Everything had Changed. But we woke on Monday, May 2, 2011, to warnings that the threat of terrorism remains in the wake of this victory.

In light of this, a single night of celebration, before we take to worrying again, seems not only acceptable but appropriate—a moment’s respite before we begin again.

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