Monday, May 2, 2011

Good Riddance

Last night's news trickled for a while, and then it gushed. Jenny, Vienna, and I were watching 60 Minutes - the story was about Zenyatta, the champion horse - when the Special Announcement began to crawl. We knew something was up because of its vague nature: President Obama was about to speak at a time that had already passed (something like 10:30 Eastern, when it was already 10:37 - or 7:37 p.m. our time). Weird.

My first instinct was to think that it had something to do with all that "birther" nonsense. Just a few days ago, the President had released his birth certificate, ending a silly controversy about a non-issue. Or so we thought. Maybe another shoe was about to drop. Then about ten minutes later we saw another crawl. The announcement was going to involve something about Osama bin Laden. That got our attention.

It's been ten years since the September 11th Attacks, but the feelings of that morning are fresh for most people I know. Just last month I saw the mangled broadcast spire from one of the Twin Towers at Washington D.C.'s Newseum, and I was struck by the placement of tissues next to a theater that showed footage from that terrible day. Streaming out from the room, dazed, a number of folks dabbed away tears. I did too.

Smoke was still rising from the rubble in 2001 when American intelligence agencies fingered bin Laden and his al-Qaeda organization. We launched cruise missiles, we landed troops, and we toppled nations in search of anyone connected to the attacks. Ten years later we're still facing the consequences of those decisions. Yet bin Laden never lost his place atop those Most Wanted lists you sometimes see in the post office. Every few months he'd release a video or audiotape - his messages a mixture of specific threats and broad commentary. Somehow he eluded the dragnet all that time.

We imagined him holed up in a cave on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. We heard he might be hiding in Iran. Experts explained that he died years ago; experts warned that he was still directing attacks. Some Americans reveled in confusing his name with President Obama. An Evil Genius, a terrorist mastermind, a mass murderer, Osama bin Laden had become an all-purpose taunt, an easy insult to throw at schoolyard kids whose ancestry evoked something wrong in the minds of the cruel and the stupid. Dead or alive, bin Laden had ceased to be human; he was an idea.

And then, yesterday, members of SEAL Team Six found him, flesh and blood, and took him out.

Right now we're still piecing through the details. Did he put up a fight? Did he cower behind one of his wives? Was there ever a chance to capture him alive? Will we see a photo, just to know it was really him? It doesn't matter, I guess. Some people will always question the official account. Just as conspiratorially minded folks are absolutely sure that Hitler escaped his bunker; they know that Oswald couldn't have killed Kennedy. For these people, bin Laden will live on and on, a ghost of doubts and anxieties, and some madness that can never be expunged.

For the rest of us (most of us, at least) there is relief that this long, sad and bloody chapter is over. Osama bin Laden is dead. Last night, Americans gathered around the White House and cheered. Today we went back to work. Good riddance.

(Photos by Andrew Wood)

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