I was about to turn off my computer late Sunday night after resting my eyeballs on some mindless TV when all of a sudden, a quick scan of the New York Times shook my peace and ruined my planned sleep. Bin Laden dead. Bin Laden killed. He’s bin terminated. He’s a has Bin. He’s bin there done that.
The Upper East Side, the sleepiest part of the city that never sleeps, had already gone to bed. Two hours after the announcement, I’m still looking out the window on my beautiful city and its always changing landscape and seeing no gathering of people. The local ABC affiliate immediately ran out to Times Square after the announcement and the reporter gushed that it was filling up with people. Behind her, trash blew around in the deserted sidewalks. I highly recommend this clip to the producers of “The Soup” and perhaps Columbia Journalism School graduates who want to learn how to avoid embarrassing themselves.
But put aside the levity and let’s attack the meat of the matter: The man who slaughtered almost 3000 innocent Americans 10 years ago is dead. The man who was willing to exploit American power for his own ends in Afghanistan until he decided he’d rather murder American civilians to impress psychopathic Islamic fundamentalists–is gone. The man who evaded capture for 10 years and told us what his real aim was–the restoration of the caliphate along the lines of the repressive Taliban, is obliterated.
I am one of those people who has never believed in the concept of closure, whether it’s political, spiritual or even romantic. People love closure the way they like crack–they promise this time is always the last time, and yet they always seem to want more of it after it’s over. So when my wife said to me tonight, as we watched the updates on ABC, that this entire thing felt anticlimactic, I knew exactly what she meant.
It feels that way for several reasons. One, the war is not over. Al Qaeda, what started out as an agreement over a table a couple of decades ago among a few rogue military leaders, one of whose rules was to have good manners, has metastasized into several networks with different leaders all vying for prestige and leadership over a restive culture of America-haters. Two, the relatively bloodless dispatch of Bin Laden in a raid on his compound in Pakistan reminds us of something we have all forgotten: He was just a man. He was not a God. He was not a country. He was not even much of an army. One of the biggest tragedies of 9/11 is that it showed us how a relatively small group of people can cause so much harm. We were attacked by a club, a mafia even, and the justice meted out was never going to compensate emotionally for the pain inflicted. It’s for similar reasons that we can’t accept the idea that Lee Harvey Oswald may have acted alone: How can one puny, limited, brutish person cause so many hopeful people so much grief? It’s for denial of that reality that America inevitably overreacted to 9/11 by invading not one but two countries, one of which had nothing to do with the attack.
The next reason it feels anticlimactic is that we will never get back the people we loved that day. As President Obama said, children are still missing fathers, husbands missing wives. Friends missing friends. The death of one man can’t make up for the pain of that either.
And finally, the reason bin Laden’s death feels anticlimactic is that we waited so horribly long for the day to arrive. For ten years, we had to live with the idea that the man who openly admitted to plotting the destruction of the World Trade Center was indeed sitting somewhere exactly where we imagined him–not in a cave fighting hand to hand but in a comfortable compound in Pakistan, in the nurturing bosom of friendly Pakistanis–drawing ten more years of breath. That was 10 years for many of us to get comfortable with some uncomfortable ideas–that life isn’t fair. That a mass murderer might indeed go unpunished. When George Bush announced at one point that bin Laden had been marginalized and was no longer a big deal, you might have read it the same way I did: He was practically promising that this account would not be reckoned. Now the mass murderer is indeed gone, but the uncomfortable idea remains. What if there had been no tip off last August? What if bin Laden had lived to a ripe old age? It was entirely possible. There were lots of Nazis, after all, who died peaceful deaths after spreading out to the four corners.
I think about this as I look at many of the faces gathering in Washington and Lower Manhattan on television. Many of them are young adults. A lot of them seem to have even been children in 2001. For them, 9/11 was likely the single most important political and philosophical experience of their lives, the event that forged their characters and their morality. It would be much harder for them to live the last 10 years with the same existential unease–that an evildoer would prevail. It doesn’t matter whether they lived in New York City and watched the World Trade Center smash into the ground (as I did) or whether they are willing to put the events in some sort of historical context (which I try to do, as painful as it can sometimes be). For them, bin Laden simply couldn’t be walking about freely in a moral universe. He had to go. I felt that way at one time. I was 31 on Sept. 11 in 2001 and the attack drove me to a despair I’d rather not describe. I had a hard time sleeping for a long time and the sound of planes gave me the creeps. For a few months, many New Yorkers lived with a grim, almost mordant pessimism that the end was near. But my hatred for bin Laden and my desire to see his lifeless corpse dragged through the streets behind a chariot yielded after a while. That kind of hatred did me no good.
But anticlimax or not, we’re still fighting a couple of wars (though Iraq is winding down). And probably the most important question raised by Osama bin Laden’s death is now this: Why are we over there? Osama bin Laden was for so long the answer to that question that you needed little other. But now the palimpsest has been erased. The central premise of our wars overseas has been removed. Though we might still be fighting networks that mean to harm America, we’ve now reached the point in which we remain present only to fight those who fight against our presence. The idea of Afghanistan slipping back into a Taliban-ruled violent, repressive theocracy is repugnant, but so are the accidental killings of civilians and the razing of towns by American forces and the funneling of American money into the pockets of Taliban leaders through public works projects. Now is the time to save face and ask if it’s time to leave. Barack Obama can have his own “Mission Accomplished” moment if he likes. It’s no sin to bug out if what we’re doing in Afghanistan is counterproductive and we got what we came for.
But I’ll sign off with this thought–I’m proud of my country tonight. As I was about to drag my sorry ass to bed, part of me wanted to throw on my clothes and go downtown at 2 in the morning to cheer with my fellow New Yorkers the removal of Osama bin Laden and his hatred from this planet. There is a narrow, joyless view that everything America does it does Energizer Bunny-like for money and oil. Sometimes, it happens, I’m sure. But a more expansive view might allow that Americans have altruism in them and that there is a goodness in us that is worth protecting. Naive perhaps, sometimes, about their own role in the world. But definitely capable of good.