Bookends of a decade

Collective events – events that everyone experiences simultaneously – are relatively rare. So it’s a mark of the times that we live in that one man has played an integral role in two of my generation’s.1

When I heard that Osama bin Laden was dead, I was at home, in front of my computer. It was a Sunday, a day off, and after putzing around for a big chunk of the day I finally settled down to write a long post about the new season of Doctor Who. I was making good progress when one of the D.C. journalists I follow on Twitter posted the strange news that President Barack Obama was going to make a speech to the nation at 8:30 Mountain Time — a half hour away.

I immediately knew this was unusual, and started running through the possibilities. The most likely cause for a such a short-notice speech, given what we knew, was something to do with Libya. Perhaps Obama was sending in ground troops. Perhaps we had killed Moamar Gadhafi? His son and grandchildren, after all, had just died in a NATO strike, so it wasn’t so outlandish.

Other possibilities for the speech were more far-fetched. Obama’s imminent resignation as president would certainly warrant such a speech, but it was ludicrous to consider — what could prompt such a thing? Presidents are ambitious men who don’t give up so swiftly. An attack on the U.S. was more possible, especially after I got word that military bases had been placed on high alert. But if the Russian or Chinese missiles were flying and Obama was going to tell us about it, would he really wait half an hour? It was possible (especially if the U.S. had struck preemptively) but still didn’t fit the facts. Such an event wouldn’t be a mystery to the media establishment for long, and mystified they were, scrambling around for information after the announcement for almost half an hour before the story broke.

I spent the rest of the evening on Twitter and instant messaging, exchanging news with journalist friends (I was proud to be the one to break the news that it was bin Laden’s death to several of them), and watching TV news. At one point I had NBC playing on my TV and Al Jazeera streaming on my laptop, shifting my attention from one to the other depending on what was being said. I also fired off emails and phone calls to South Dakota’s political leaders, ensuring that I’d get whatever statements were being sent out so I could forward them on to work. When Obama spoke, I live-tweeted his speech, and I kept retweeting news from various sources throughout the evening.

All told, my level of engagement was very difficult than my experience a decade ago, on Sept. 11, 2001. At that time I was a sophomore in high school, shortly after the start of the school year. The first I heard was walking into my second period health class, where the teacher had her classroom TV turned to the news. It was clear that SOMETHING had happened, though I can’t recall exactly how much was known at that point. (This would have been around 9 a.m. Central Time, or 10 E.T., at which point both the south and north towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had been struck. United 93 crashed around this time.) But when the second bell rang, my no-nonsense health teacher shut off the TV and started class.

Fourth period was band, and at that point we knew more details and that the principal was about to go on the intercom to address the school about the event. I suggested to my band teacher that we play the Star Spangled Banner (part of our regular repertoire in September, marching band season) after the principal finished talking. It seemed appropriate. The band director agreed, and we did.

After school activities were cancelled that day, which I believe got me out of a speech practice I wasn’t looking forward to. Heading home I noticed people gathering on the street, at the intersection of two major roads through town where my school was — a spontaneous pro-America rally.

Like a decade later, I spent most of the rest of the day getting news. My aunt, who worked in the World Trade Center, was fine. Only two events from the remainder of that Tuesday stick in my mind. The first is seeing the news coverage of that spontaneous rally growing bigger and bigger and then turning ugly, as members of the crowd tried to march on the mosque located several miles to the west. Police from multiple suburbs were called in to head them off, and ultimately that ended without bloodshed or destruction.

The second is watching grainy footage of explosions in Afghanistan on TV. More than any personal, emotional responses, I reacted to the September 11 attacks by asking myself “what next”? As it quickly became evident that Afghanistan had a role in the attacks, I was intensely pondering America’s response – and in particular what would almost certainly be a military response. Despite being a politically conscious child I didn’t dwell overmuch on the political implications. It was the military implications that fascinated me, and I was glued to the TV as reporters tried to figure out whether the Afghan explosions caught on tape was American retaliation. (As it turned out, it was internal Afghan fighting, related to the assassination two days prior of anti-Taliban leader Ahmad Shah Massoud.)

I can’t really say that the September 11 attacks had much of a psychological effect on me. I don’t recall an increase in anxiety or fear of further attacks, as many people did in that time. As was (and is) my wont, I reacted by detaching from the situation and analyzing. But I’m far from a robot (despite, perhaps, some peoples’ occasional suspicions) and definitely did feel an emotional response to the attacks, a surge in patriotic pride evidenced by my idea for the band to play the national anthem.

Similarly, when news broke that U.S. forces had killed Osama bin Laden, I felt some vague stirrings of satisfaction as I learned more, and it was hard not to be moved by the images of the spontaneous rallies in Washington, D.C. and New York City. At the same time I was more than a little put off, as I monitored my Twitter feeds, by the visceral POLITICAL reactions from both left and right. Some conservatives I followed on Twitter heaped disdain on Obama throughout the entire evening, while I can’t tell you how many times I saw the same hackneyed joke about Donald Trump and a death certificate bandied about by liberals. (One liberal friend wrote that this was the first time she had ever seen a crowd of people chanting “U.S.A.!” un-ironically, which I understand to a certain extent but which I think reflects a certain narrowness of association that’s endemic on both sides of the culture war today.) There is a time for everything, but the instinctive mudslinging felt out of place on Sunday night.

Osama bin Laden was one man, probably no longer terribly involved in the terrorist network he founded, and it’s important to keep that perspective. At the same time he did play an integral role in an event whose historical importance cannot be downplayed, the September 11 attacks. His death represents a sense of closure, whether or not it turns out to have an impact on America’s military engagement in the Muslim world.

I’m conflicted about the sense of glee and satisfaction that I and many others feel on bin Laden’s assassination. That he deserved death is not really in dispute. Did he deserve THAT death, gunned down in a firefight in a Pakistani safehouse, as opposed to execution after a trial or tribunal? I think I would have preferred the latter, though I can also see all the complications that putting one of the most infamous men in the world on trial would have caused.

But a man deserving death, and celebrating that man’s death are different things. There’s something primal about taking satisfaction in one’s enemies death, and trying to deny the validity of this quintessentially human emotion is, I think a mistake. We are not, as much as I might wish, beings of pure thought.

Emotional creatures though we are, we do not have to simply accept whatever feelings rise up inside us, either. The ability to think and reason (however much psychologists increasingly cast doubt on those functions) does mean something, and free will includes the ability to not give in to our emotions.

Is this schadenfreude at the death of a noxious man an emotion we should choose to embrace?

A quote has been bouncing around since the bin Laden news was announced: “I’ve never wished a man dead but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure.” This is apparently a misquote — Mark Twain, to whom it’s attributed, probably didn’t say it. Famous defense attorney Clarence Darrow did, though in a different form. But even without Twainian pedigree it’s still a fascinating aphorism, and one I think that offers a middle ground between primal bloodlust and principled pacifism.

Had I been in President Obama’s shoes, I probably would have given the order to send the Navy SEALS into the Abbottabad compound. But even someone who couldn’t bring themselves to order a man’s possible death can still rejoice when it happens. It doesn’t make you a monster or degenerate. It makes you human, and even if it’s a human foible and not feature that should be a cause for self-reflection, not self-denial.

So now Osama bin Laden is dead, almost 10 years after the attacks he helped plan shaped the course of this decade. Whether historians look back on this event as a footnote or as a symbolic turning point depends on other events that have yet to occur, but it’s possible that they’ll view it as as end of a decadal era between September 11, 2001 and May 1, 2011. Some historians have posited the idea of the “long nineteenth century” lasting from the French Revolution in 1789 to the beginning of World War I in 1914. If you have to mark any event that signaled the passing into a new decade it would be September 11, and not the 2000 election, the dot-com crash or the actual turn of the calendar to 2000. It’s interesting that the death of the man who set those attacks in motion happened so close to 10 years after them.

  1. What other collective events has my generation experienced? At age 25, the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Soviet Union happened too early, though one of my first conscious memories is watching a news program about those events. The O.J. Simpson verdict transfixed the nation and certainly made its way onto my elementary school playground, but I would hesitate to associate that ultimately insignificant event with the term epochal. The impeachment of President Bill Clinton transfixed the country, but that was a long, drawn-out process and not a singular event. The 2000 election ended up the same way. The 2008 election is perhaps the best other candidate for a collective moment for the millennial generation, but whether it qualifies is tinged with political overtones. Even conservatives who despise Obama can probably admit that the election of the first black president was of some significance, even if their experience of the event had little in common with the euphoria of college-aged liberals.