So far, three images in the media coverage of Osama bin Laden’s untimely (only in the sense of being ten years overdue) death are most prominent. The first is the ubiquitous undated file photo of a raggedly bearded, white-robed bin Laden staring off to the left of the camera. This is the boogeyman image, the icon that’s leered out from televisions and computer screens for as long as someone my age can remember. It and a handful of others – bin Laden in military garb, with an AK-47 propped nearby, or a short clip of him firing it at an al-Qaeda training camp – are the collective cultural imagery of a concept more than a man, the maddeningly elusive ghost behind the great atrocity at the center of the last ten years of American history.
The second is that of President Obama standing at the end of a long hallway in the East Room, announcing to the world what the world had begun to suspect. The United States had finally made good on its promise from atop the rubble of the World Trade Center; finally, justice had been brought to Osama bin Laden. Better yet, it had been brought in person, courtesy of the US special forces personnel and intelligence services who were and are the most effective weapons the United States has against non-state enemies. The man who masterminded the destruction of so many millions of tons of American steel had met his end from a tiny bit of American lead – delivered, as the President could reveal, after an investigative process that stretches back four years at least and in operational planning for weeks or months.
The third image on every news site and front page today is that of the cheering crowds which spontaneously assembled in front of the White House and Ground Zero after the news broke. The celebrators, mostly students, abandoned dorms and finals and late nights in the library in order to take part in our generation’s V-E Day, or something like it. As Lafayette Square filled with cheering students from Georgetown, American, and George Washington, draped in American flags (Noah Kristula-Green does a good job of capturing the atmosphere here) and chanting “U-S-A”, it became impossible not to get caught up in the sheer jubilation of it, though the signage (my favorite, despite its inaccuracy: “Bin Laden’s body = Bo’s breakfast”), the significant fraction of the crowd affiliated with the military, and the occasional cries of “fuck Osama!” served as potent reminders to why we were there.
There’s already been a lot of tut-tutting; disapproving clucks from internet opinionistas that the kind of celebration that broke out at Ground Zero and serenaded the president to sleep was inappropriate. Some say that we shouldn’t celebrate the death of a human being, no matter how vile. Some spectacularly idiotic commenters I’ve seen have even compared the cheering last night to the mythical Palestinian celebration on the day of 9/11 itself, as if expressing joy at the calculated murder of 3,000 innocents is somehow morally equivalent to expressing joy at the demise of the man responsible. More practical-minded people might say that a perception of American gloating might cause a backlash in the rest of the world, squandering a moment of genuine global solidarity with the United States.
Maybe some of them are right. But I think the writers condemning the jubilation fail to grasp that this event is profoundly generational.
I’ll be 21 years old in a week. I was 11, in sixth-grade science class when the first plane hit the World Trade Center and the teacher turned on the classroom television – the one on which we saw the second plane hit and the towers collapse, the one that showed the Pentagon in flames and debris strewn across a Pennsylvania field.
People my age and a little older can just remember the time before color-coded security warnings, and two extraordinarily costly wars, and the use of the phrase “the terrorists” to describe the vast array of nebulous enemies the United States faces at any particular moment. But only just. We remember the day itself down to the last detail, but none of us were old enough to have lives and personalities and preferences unshaped by a day of unpredictable terror. We asked our parents and teachers who this Osama bin Laden was who could do such a thing, though we couldn’t have hoped to understand and they couldn’t have explained the vast array of causes that led to that September morning. There was no hope for a return to normalcy for us – we didn’t have a normal to go back to. And as we’ve grown up since that day, we’ve done the bulk of the fighting and dying in the conflicts which, rightly or wrongly, came about as a direct consequence of the 9/11 attacks.
For us, the narrow generation that can recall the day in crystal clarity but for whom memories of the “pre-9/11 world” fade dimmer every year, Osama bin Laden’s death is the banishment of a specter that’s haunted our lives as far back as we can remember. Yes, bin Laden was probably not in operational control of al-Qaeda; yes, there’s also a place for quiet reflection on those we’ve lost or vigilance against revenge attacks. And yes, because we’re now college-aged, we celebrated as college students know how – with sports cheers and home-made signs on Natty Light cases – loudly, crassly, perhaps even drunkenly. But for we who have had precious little to unequivocally celebrate in the last few years, this moment represents a triumph over the various anxieties of our times. The federal deficit looms out of control, we find ourselves increasingly disgusted with a political system that seems tailor-made to operate dishonestly and at our expense, and many of us still can’t find jobs – but at least we finally got the bastard. And if America can do that, finally, after most people had assumed he was long dead, or would never be found, then maybe things really will turn out right in the end.
So before the rush to wag a finger at us out rejoicing in the third panel of this bin Laden triptych, consider for a moment another image or two. The World Trade Center, billowing smoke. A fully loaded airliner disappearing into a ball of flame in the side of the South Tower. Tiny figures jumping from a hundred stories up, deciding to plunge to concrete rather than be snuffed out or crushed. The Pentagon suddenly reduced to four sides as plumes of smoke rise over the Potomac and the Hudson and southwest Pennsylvania. For the generation out in the streets last night, perhaps more than most Americans, these images are seared into our brains as what evil looks like in the 21st century, and every one is superimposed with Osama bin Laden’s face. Yesterday, the hold which that ghastly visage had on us was shattered when an American probably not much older than us went to its lair and put a bullet through it. The problems of this country and the world are still here in the morning. Last night, how could we keep from singing?