I was sitting on my couch, reading the news on my iPhone, when I learned of Osama bin Laden’s death — caught and shot in the head by military and C.I.A operatives, at his compound in Pakistan. Without thinking about, I close my eyes and breathed a sigh.
What was I feeling? Relief? Perhaps. Something had just ended for me and millions of American, certainly. I felt a lot of things in that moment, but I didn’t feel like celebrating. It didn’t surprise me that a lot of people did feel like celebrating. It disturbed me.
The news touched off an extraordinary outpouring of emotion as crowds gathered outside the White House, in Times Square and at the ground zero site, waving American flags, cheering, shouting, laughing and chanting, U.S.A., U.S.A.! In New York City, crowds sang The Star-Spangled Banner. Throughout downtown Washington, drivers honked horns deep into the night.
As I sat there, I closed my eyes and remembered what the morning of September 11, 2001 was like for me. What I remembered was confusion that quickly turned to fear before settling into an almost paralyzing sense of dread.
It was especially scary, because I was supposed to be on a plane myself later that day. The organization I worked for was having its annual conference that week, and several of my coworkers were flying out of D.C. that morning. (For a while we, didn’t know what their fates were, but later learned that everyone was safe. While some made it to the conference location, most were grounded. The conference was canceled.)
We lived in D.C. at the time, so the attack on the Pentagon hit very close to home. At a time like that, all you really think about are your loved ones. Where are they? Are they safe? Are they alright? The only thing worse than the fear of that day was the uncertainty of not having answers to those questions. I wanted nothing so much as to hear my husband’s voice and know that he was alive and well. We tried desperately to reach each other but phone lines busy and cellular networks were jammed.
It was a long day of fear and uncertainty. I worked a few blocks from where we lived. So I walked home in a daze, past other people who were either panicked or similarly dazed. My husband worked in Maryland, and had a long to drive back in to the city, in snarled traffic.
Maybe I didn’t want to be alone yet. Maybe in a time of crisis having some extra food in the house gave me some sense of security. But for reasons I still don’t understand, instead of going home, I wandered into the Whole Foods grocery store near our house and purchase random groceries.
Then began the long wait, and the shared ritual of making and receiving phone calls, sending and receiving emails, or reading and sending messages in online forums to let others know we were OK, and to confirm that friends and loved ones were safe. Or not. All the while the footage of the attack on and collapse of the World Trade Center towers play in the background, as if the television was stuck in an endless loop, until I could stand it no more and turned it off.
We were fortunate that day. My husband and I made it home to one another, and neither of us lost friends of families that day. But, like all Americans, we lost something that day.
Maybe it was our sense of security, or at least our certainty that the violence that was an almost daily occurrence in other parts of the world couldn’t touch us — at least not here on our own soil. Maybe we lost the freedom from fear we had taken for granted; the privilege of assuming that the person next to us on an airplane, bus, or subway train might be intent on our destruction; or that we weren’t likely to be killed on our way to work, on our way home, or in our own homes.
Then, in the time it took for President Obama to make his speech, we felt that fear lift. But that doesn’t seem to explain the kind of celebrating that took place in the streets of Washington, D.C., New York City, and elsewhere.
Looking at the flag waving, chanting crowds was enough to make one think we’d won a war, when perhaps it’s closer to the truth to say that we settled a score. The day after September 11, I returned to work and we had a staff meeting to talk about the canceled conference, but really also to talk about our reaction to the attacks the day before. “I’ll be honest,” said one staff member, “I want vengeance.”
Certainly, he wasn’t alone in feeling that. Given the horrific nature of the attacks, it was a natural response. That wasn’t what I felt, however. I, like millions of Americans wanted those responsible brought to justice. But I feared that our unity in sorrow might give way to vengeance, and — like Chris Hedges — I watched as what I feared came to pass.
When I was in New York, as some of you were, on 9/11, I was in Times Square when the second plane hit. I walked into The New York Times, I stuffed notebooks in my pocket and walked down the West Side Highway and was at Ground Zero four hours later. I was there when Building 7 collapsed. And I watched as a nation drank deep from that very dark elixir of American nationalism the flip side of nationalism is always racism, its about self-exaltation and the denigration of the other.
What started out as patriotism after September 11, seemed to morph into a desire for vengeance that the Bush administration exploited to lead the country into two wars that — in term the cost of human lives, not just American lives — surpassed the death toll of September 11.
President Obama acknowledged that the post-9/11 unity of the people of the United States has at time frayed. But he didnt mention that that unity had actually collapsed completely within 24 hours of the horrifying attacks on the twin towers. September 11th didnt change the world; the world was changed on September 12th, when George W. Bush announced his intention to take the world to war in response. That was the moment that the actual events of 9/11, a crime against humanity that killed nearly 3,000 people, were left behind and the global war on terror began. That GWOT war has brought years of war, devastation and destruction to hundreds of thousands around the world, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and beyond.
There was an unprecedented surge of unity, of human solidarity, in response to the crime of 9/11. In the U.S. much of that response immediately took on a jingoistic and xenophobic frame (some of which showed up again last night in the aggressive chants of USA, USA!! from flag-waving, cheering crowds outside the White House following President Obamas speech). Some of it was overtly militaristic, racist and Islamophobic. But some really did reflect a level of human unity unexpected and rare in U.S. history. Even internationally, solidarity with the people of the U.S. for a brief moment replaced the well-deserved global anger at U.S. arrogance, wars, and drive towards empire. In France, headlines proclaimed nous sommes tous Am�ricaines maintenant. We are all Americans now.
But that human solidarity was short-lived. It was destroyed by the illegal wars that shaped U.S. response to the 9/11 crime. Those wars quickly created numbers of victims far surpassing the 3,000 killed on September 11. The lives of millions more around the world were transformed in the face of U.S. aggression in Pakistan alone, where a U.S. military team assassinated bin Laden, thousands of people have been killed and maimed by U.S. drone strikes and the suicide bombs that are part of the continuing legacy of the U.S. war. These wars have brought too much death and destruction, too many people have died, too many children have been orphaned, for the U.S. to claim, as President Obamas triumphantly did, that justice has been done because one man, however symbolically important, has been killed. However one calculates when and how this fight actually began, the U.S. government chose how to respond to 9/11. And that response, from the beginning, was one of war and vengeance not of justice.
A desire for vengeance is not the same as a desire for justice. I don’t know what justice would have looked like in this case. Would it have been Osama bin Laden turning himself in? Would it have been Osama bin Laden standing trial?
I can’t answer those questions, but even now I have a feeling of deja vu when we take the desire for or celebration of vengeance is taken as patriotism. And I have a feeling of dread because it means we haven’t learned what a terrible price is paid for it.
Given the nature of the 9/11 attacks a popular desire for vengeance in the US is a perfectly understandable and legitimate emotional response. It is not, however, a foreign policy. And if vengeance is a comprehensible human emotion then empathy is no less so.
Americans have a right to grieve and remember those who died on 9/11. But they have no monopoly on memory, grief or anger. Hundreds and thousands of innocent Afghanis, Iraqis and Pakistanis have been murdered as a result of America’s response to 9/11. If it’s righteous vengeance they’re after, Americans would not be first in line. Fortunately it is not a competition, and there is enough misery to go around.
But those who chant “We killed Bin Laden” cannot display their identification with American power so completely and then expect others to understand it as partial. The American military has done many things in this region. Killing Bin Laden is just one of them.
If “they” killed Bin Laden in Abbottabad then “they” also bombed a large number of wedding parties in Afghanistan, “they” murdered 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha and “they” gang-raped a 14-year-old before murdering her, her six-year-old sister and their parents near Mahmudiyah. If “they” don’t want to be associated with the atrocities then “they” need to find more to celebrate than an assassination. Vengeance is, in no small part, what got us here. It won’t get us out.
Instead, it will exact a price from us, too — The price of retribution.
The attacks of September 11 left thousands dead, families broken, and turned the center of the proudest city in the world into rubble. But they also left a festering wound in the American psyche that has yet to heal.
In the years following September 11, America lost its mind. Fearful, Americans gave over more power to their government than ever before in the form of the PATRIOT Act. Reflecting on hideous legal memos justifying government-sanctioned torture, Justice Department Official David Margolis exonerated the authors suggesting that they were victims of a lapse in judgment brought on by the aftermath of 9/11.
The march to war in Iraq was bolstered by two false narratives: one laying the blame for the September 11 attacks on Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the other manufacturing a false link between Iraq and al-Qaeda. The American people, frightened as they were at the time, acquiesced to a foolish and unnecessary war. Things didn’t improve after Barack Obama took office. Former Vice President Dick Cheney effectively turned the shame of torture into a badge of honor. The once-bipartisan goal of closing Gitmo became an impossible task as one side gave into fear and the other embraced it. Several weeks ago, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the United States of America was too afraid of its own legal system to try the alleged perpetrators of 9/11 in the very city where the slaughter took place. Nations such as Israel, India, and Pakistan had weathered the harrowing reality of terrorism for decades, but despite the bravery of our first-responders and service members, in other ways, America proved exceptionally fragile.
The price of retribution is counted not only what we have lost of ourselves, but what we have become as a result. It’s evident in ways big and small; from the New York Times dropping the honorific “Mr.” from bin Laden’s name, to right wing media practically calling for bin Laden’s corpse to be dragged through our streets.
There’s now even some debate as to what to do with the photographs of bin Laden’s body. Release them? Don’t release them? It brings to mind how some, after 9/11, thought that not only should images of the remains of the victims be release, but that those of us whose desire for war was insufficient should be required to view them. What’s the purpose? What’s the difference?
I still don’t quite know what I feel about Osama bin Laden’s death. Perhaps, as I said earlier, it’s just relief that the bogeyman has been banished, the monster that haunted us for so long has been slain. But in a sense, he was a monster of our own making, who expertly employed the tools used to create him, and very nearly re-made us in his own image.
How should we respond to Osama bin Laden’s death? I won’t presume to tell anyone else how they should respond. As a Buddhist, I can’t celebrate another human being’s death, even one such as Osama bin Laden. At the same time, I don’t regret it. I’m regretful that some of us think it’s cause for celebration.
One of us is gone — one apparently horrific, terrible, vicious person among us is gone. I don’t feel regret for him or about this. I’m regretful for the rest of us who are now left thinking that this is a cause for celebration. It is not. It is a cause for sorrow at our continued inability to realize that there is no such thing as us-and-them, that whatever we do to cause harm to one will harm us all.
When we hate, we cause hate. When we think we have won by vanquishing our enemy, we have lost. In killing Osama bin Laden, “they” lose because one of their leaders is gone. But we lose, too, because we have deepened the causes and conditions that lead to more hatred and its consequences. This is not over.
So what do we do? I don’t really know, but for me, rather than cheering on this day, I’m going to rededicate myself to the idea of brotherhood toward all, even those that want me dead — and not because I’m some kind of really good person (I’m not), but because I know it’s the only way to stay alive in the only kind of world I want to inhabit.
Perhaps the way to kill your enemy as a way of putting a stop to violence rather than escalating is to shift our view of “enemy” altogether. Our enemy is not one person or country or belief system. It is our unwillingness to feel the sorrow of others — who are none other than us.
Jim Wallis, whom I respect but don’t always agree with, offers a similar response from a Christian perspective.
Indeed, the problem of war is how indiscriminate it is. And it is worth noting that the special forces action that resulted in the death of bin Laden was a very focused effort to bring one perpetrator to justice, rather than just another act of war. We didn’t get bin Laden as a casualty of bombing raids or drone attacks on the city that harbored him; instead, this was the result of careful intelligence and a laser-like focus on the man most responsible for 9/11. Some of us believe that should have been the U.S. strategy from the beginning.
But the death of bin Laden must become an important historical moment of reflection. How do we best respond to evil and those who perpetrate it? What have we learned in the last 10 years about what truly is the best answer to the violence of terrorism? How do we change the conditions that have allowed terrorists to pull others into their agenda? In this fallen world we are often faced with imperfect choices in response to the clear dangers of evil. Religious wisdom always has us look also at ourselves and what opportunities we have to be makers of peace. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once said, “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.”
Yes, it feels like a page has been turned. It feels like something has lifted; like something has ended. It feels safe, now, to say “It’s over.” But as Susan Piver said above, this is not over. It won’t be over until more of us take to heart something I saw on a banner when the war in Iraq started.
One evening, as we were driving home from a social event, I looked out of the car window and saw a banner tied to a wrought iron fence outside of a church. It read, How are you living your life to prevent the next war? I had to think about it for a while before I understood what it meant.
Id go even further and say that you dont need to bring yourself through the doors of any church (though theres nothing wrong with doing so). Any act of kindness may be the best ammunition we have against events like we saw in Blacksburg this week; even the smallest things like a door holding a door for someone, giving up a seat on the train to someone who may need it more, helping someone pick up papers theyve dropped in the middle of the street, or taking a deep breath in a moment of impatience instead of responding in anger. Even forgiving a slight (real or perceived) that you wouldnt have otherwise, holding back on an unkind or hurtful word thats on the tip of your tongue, or offering an apology that youre not sure is necessary or are reluctant to offer, will go further than we can imagine.
It may be a little naive, but at times like this I have to believe that enough acts of kindness like those above can accumulate and shift the odds in favor of avoiding another tragedy.
The fear, horror, and uncertainty that seems to finally be over now won’t really be over on a large scale until we decide to end it on a small scale. Even if the only part of the world we can change is what’s within arms reach, when we finally chose to change it, then it will be time to celebrate.