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Bittersweet: The Death of Osama bin Laden

Osama bin Laden is dead.


You’ve already received this news from a multitude of sources, unless of course you’ve been living in a cave (which, ironically, would set you apart from bin Laden). When I first heard the news, my reaction was mixed and far more subdued than I expected. I suppose I felt a sense of relief mostly. As I saw my Facebook feed fill with messages of elation and joy, I considered similarly expressing myself, but I did not feel the same emotions. I thought about going to the White House to celebrate as I heard many others were doing, but I did not feel motivated to do so. I wondered if something was wrong with me that I did not feel explicitly happy about being rid of such a mass murderer as Osama bin Laden.

My friend Daniel Shor found an explanation faster than I, posting the message: “As exciting as this is, as necessary as this may have been, I can’t really be happy over someone, anyone’s death.” I realized that I felt similarily, and soon other friends came out of the woodworks to express similar thoughts, followed by sober reactions from a few pundits as well.

I cannot celebrate a massacre, even if I think it was justified. I cannot support revenge, because it runs counter to everything I believe. I am not Christian, but I think Jesus summed up these ideas well in his teachings: instructing followers to respond to evil with compassion and return hate with love.

For many people, this news has awakened long-buried feelings from the day that made bin Laden notorious. His death will not bring back those lost lives, and it certainly will not stop terrorists from plotting future atrocities. For many who lost loved ones, this no doubt represents a sense of justice, but one that is bittersweet, because it reminds us of the history that we cannot erase.

But I’m also not willing to say that everyone who celebrated was wrong. Although it is too fuzzy a distinction for my comfort, I am confident that not everyone was celebrating the physical killing of bin Laden. His actions scarred the nation in too many ways for me to understand what each person felt. The news outlets have repeatedly used the word closure, and I believe that is part of it.

The reason this event is so difficult to understand is that Osama bin Laden ceased to be only a person; he became a symbol as well. Bin Laden was not just a symbol of terrorism, or evil, or anti-Americanism; he was also a symbol of our own helplessness. I believe that is the main reason that emotions concerning him have been so potent. Watching those towers go down was the ultimate moment of helplessness, and it only compounded itself over the years as we  floundered about in Afghanistan, failing to make progress, failing to capture the perpetrator, and all the while knowing that he was alive and well and taunting us with a steady stream of audio and video tapes. Myself and others in my generation have lived about half of our lives in a world where Osama bin Laden was hunted and could not be found.

So I cannot judge everyone’s reactions. I did not lose anyone close to me on 9/11, for which I am grateful, and I know only one or two people who have served or are serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. Others will have a vastly different perspective. For example, there was the school teacher that vowed not to shave until bin Laden was caught or the girl I overheard explaining how her ex-husband served in Afghanistan and how his PTSD tore their marriage apart. For them, this event was much more personal. Further afield, there was the 33-year-old IT consultant in Abbottabad who “accidentally liveblogged” about the operation over Twitter, complaining about the 1am helicopter noise.

So what I am getting at is that this death has affected each person in a different way, but it is still a death. Bin Laden was shot, unarmed, and his killing was witnessed by his wife (who rushed the commandos and was shot in the calf) and possibly by his 12 year-old daughter (I’ve heard conflicting reports). He leaves behind many family members who were not involved or supportive of his jihadist lifestyle, and I’m sure his death will only complicate their lives. So celebrate if you wish, but please do so with a full and respectful understanding of the impact that this event and your celebration will have on each other person affected by it.

I, for one, welcome the sense of closure that this brings to our nation, but I am also very nervous about the impact this will have on U.S. foreign policy and bin Laden’s legacy, and I pray that our troops will not be the victims of a backlash to this announcement.

I plan to write another post soon on the implications of bin Laden’s death for U.S. domestic politics and foreign policy.

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