Last Night in American History

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On Sunday night I was shopping for a new pair of jeans to wear for my trip back to Jersey while periodically checking the score of the Phillies game. I was quibbling with waist size and fit differences between brands when a friend called. He informed me that President Obama was about to address the entire nation through all available means – television, radio, etc. – an act which has apparently only occurred one other time in US history. The speculation as to the subject of this surprise address was that Osama bin Laden had been killed.

An hour later this was confirmed.

For almost a decade Osama bin Laden has been the chief villain of the free world. Now he is no more. His death is welcome, and for many it will be celebrated. The bittersweet closure this will bring to some is a sentiment with which I can only empathize, because I did not lose anyone close to me in 9/11. Those who did are entitled to react to this news however they see fit. Some will cheer. It is their right.

For me, Osama bin Laden was a symbol of fear. I remember standing in my mother’s living room, watching the news as the second of the Twin Towers fell. Since I was a child there had always been in my mind an invisible shield over our nation. That day the shield dissolved. I realized that I had always taken for granted – because I was born into knowing it – a sense of national invincibility. I always figured nothing could touch us. After all, we are the United States. But, I suddenly felt vulnerable. I had no idea who to trust. I had no idea what would happen next. I was scared. What else was Al-Qaeda capable of?

In the resulting fear Americans found common ground. A welling of patriotism spread across the nation. Everyone flew a flag. Camaraderie would grow to new heights, but in a few months that camaraderie would fade and cynicism would take back over. Such are Americans: bound together when necessary, but quick to divide when new facts, theories and feelings abound. I don’t mean this as a sleight on us, but rather as a testament to our resolve and ability to think freely (no matter the poison of certain theories). Since, we have collectively settled into a new era where only slowly has a new shield formed. The fear, however, has to an extent remained.

Now the symbol of that fear is dead. With possible retaliations by Al-Qaeda already being speculated, and bin Laden’s successor being talked about, I have to wonder if this is true closure. Is it even supposed to feel like closure? I agree that this chapter is over – our villain has been vanquished and in the coming days a new chapter will start to be written. So, I don’t know what to call this moment. While it can be said that Osama bin Laden as an individual has been brought to justice, as a whole justice has yet to be served. I don’t know what that justice will look like, or if it will ever come to pass. The thought of it leaves me questioning the difference between justice and revenge, and if such a difference matters in this instance. Make no mistake: today is a good day, but one that requires the same examination as the day that started us towards this ending.

Consider that in moments like this we remember to celebrate our troops and the leaders that keep us safe. In other moments we disagree with policies and military agenda, and rail back with our own politics and ideas. This emotional pendulum is a part of our strength. It is a quality of a good family to stick together in bad times, and to be honest with each other in all others. It is also a quality of a family’s children to take for granted the things they don’t have to worry about – a luxury parents are willing to afford. So, it was in a somewhat fitting matter that the news first reached me: while I was here keeping tabs on a baseball game and shopping for blue jeans, somewhere in a dark spot on the other side of the world, a group of American soldiers were risking their lives to provide us with peace of mind.

Whether justice or closure was achieved in the moment Osama bin Laden breathed his last wicked breath I don’t know, because I don’t know everyone’s story. Some will find peace, yes, but others will find cynicism. Some will feel a cleansing breath and go back to work feeling no different from the day before. Some, indeed, will feel justice has been served. The one holistic truth to the event, however, will be this: while the killing of Osama bin Laden may not bring comfort in itself, the accomplishment of the mission to do so does – as will the next time America faces a villain, when our leaders and troops again assure us that everything is OK, and that it’s safe to go back to sleep.

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