As a father of five, I can tell you this: things are easier when you’re a kid. Life is black and white. There are good guys (who always win) and bad guys (who always lose). There’s a sense of hope and optimism about the world that is unfortunately crushed well before it should be.
Sometimes, being a grown-up isn’t as easy. Sometimes it means facing things that are difficult, things that are morally ambiguous. Sometimes, we have to have an opinion about those things. Sometimes, those opinions make us really question the values we hold, and make us very uncomfortable.
Such is the case with the recent news of Osama bin Laden’s death at the hands of American forces. My gut reaction – as was clearly the gut reaction of most of the country – was a hearty cheer and a soulful chant of, “USA! USA! USA!” After all, this was the man who inspired, funded, and helped put together the horrific terror attacks on that bright September morning in 2001. This was the man whose words have inspired huge portions of the Muslim world to take up arms against the West and our allies. This was the man whose mandate to “kill Americans, wherever you find them” has led to the deaths of thousands of innocent citizens, and thousands more in the ensuing wars.
It’s been over 12 hours now since those first few moments of joy, and of course the reality of the situation has set in. Functionally, bin Laden’s death changes almost nothing in the war on terror – save for any useful intelligence we’ve picked up (and according to CNN, there is quite a bit). But al Qaeda has been decentralized for many years now – ever since we drove them out of Afghanistan. To my mind, that was a far more meaningful and functional victory, as it deprived them of their base of operations.
So this isn’t exactly what I’d call landing a fatal blow. It’s more like the last bit of housecleaning we needed to do before departing the region (and I do hope we begin that process now). It’s something that might have had a far more significant impact had it happened on May 1st, 2002 than May 1st, 2011. Nevertheless, I will not over-simplify the importance of this moment. Until now, bin Laden stood as a mockery to American justice. Every new tape, every new clip was a fresh handful of salt tossed into an aging wound. We just couldn’t catch him. He defied us, spilled our blood upon the streets of New York and the halls of Washington, and we could do nothing. Last nights images of Americans dancing in the streets at the news of bin Laden’s death serve as a fitting conclusion to a narrative that opened with many in Afghanistan and other Muslim regions dancing in the streets at the site of the Twin Towers falling to the ground. And so, if only in the grand poetic sense, the sense that will someday form the final pages of the chapter on Terrorism in the United States in a history book, Osama bin Laden’s death is a huge moment. I don’t think any of us expected this conclusion, especially after so many years. Yet, here we are.
But I’m drawn back to that conundrum of being an adult again. I’m not a violent man, and I’ve seen enough death in my life to be convinced that I don’t ever want to see anymore, regardless of who it is. But being a so-called “grown up” is facing those decisions, and in some cases having to act on them (or at least qualify them and live with them). In this sense, I am most disconcerted. Those feelings of justice being served, those grand images that will someday fill history books have to give way to the reality that this moment really doesn’t mean all that much outside of that rather poetic context. As I mentioned above, bin Laden’s death will have little impact to an organization that has been decentralized for the better part of a decade. His words are what inspired, and his words will continue to inspire regardless of the disposition of his body. The damage has been done already. All we can really do is what we have done already: remain vigilant, engage these people wherever we find them, and try to stop these attacks before they happen. We’ve been doing that for a decade now, and our efforts have been quite successful. I don’t like thinking about it that way, but it’s the truth. This moment we’ve all waited nearly a decade to see, ultimately, is more a symbolic victory. It’s an important symbolic victory – but that doesn’t change its nature.
Now there are some who want to underplay it – who say, well it doesn’t mean anything to me personally. That’s a valid viewpoint, but it’s a little inwardly focused, isn’t it? The profound selfishness of the average American is, in my mind, a major problem. “It doesn’t affect me, so I don’t care” is, unfortunately, a narrow-minded view. One September 11th, we had brotherhood and unity. Those of us in Pittsburgh were New Yorkers that day. People in Orlanda were all New Yorkers that day. People from Austin were from Washington DC. People from Philly were suddenly from DC. Just because nothing happened to ME on September 11th, 2001, that doesn’t mean the larger events didn’t hurt like hell. And so just as we stood in unity and felt the pain and the anger of those horrific acts, so too should we stand together and applaud the justice that was finally meted out. We needn’t politicize it and we needn’t dramatize it. We needn’t act like this one act “won” the war on terror. But we shouldn’t shrug it off with such casual indifference.
Will this galvanize the terrorists of the world? Will there be another major strike in retaliation? It’s hard to say. Over the past ten years, we’ve expected “retaliation” for any number of captures and kills. It’s certainly possible – but let’s not forget who we’re dealing with. These men have dedicated themselves to kill us no matter where we are, no matter what day it is. Their faith will tell them bin Laden is now a martyr, murdered in cold blood by the infidels. But they already believed we were infidels, and they have been trying to kills us because we have invaded their land looking those responsible after the attacks.
I’ll say this: those who cry out that we should have left Osama bin Laden alone out of fear of retaliation completely baffle me. Was it not complacence on our part that led to the attacks in the first place? The damage has been done: they’ve already hit us. And they’ve hit our friends and allies, too. They’ve sown destruction in the hope of reaping fear, and to me that – fear – is exactly what the “leave him alone or they’ll strike back” mindset is born of. Yes, they might strike back. But we cannot and should not fear that. It has been said that all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.
The death of bin Laden was necessary. It’s a hell of a thing to face – to take joy in the death of another human being (though some would contend he was no such thing) – to declare that the world is better without him. It’s not as cut and dry as it was when we were kids. When the bad guys always lost and the good guys always won. But somewhere deep within the shades of grey that make up our existence, somewhere undiscernable, the white does still separate from the black. Let’s accept bin Laden’s death for what it is: a symbolic victory, a reason to celebrate but also to remember those who lost their lives, and a chance to step up our efforts to capture the real threats: bin Laden’s disciples. The men who are actively planning out new attacks. Let’s bring our men and women home and assess what comes next. Let’s keep up the fight. There’s still a lot to be done so let’s get to it. To quote one of the bravest men in history: let’s roll.