I have mixed emotions in response to the news that Osama bin Laden was captured and killed.  On one hand, I am relieved and glad that the world is rid of the mastermind of an evil that couldn’t even be comprehended prior to September 11, 2001.  Who could ever have imagined that there were people who could be convinced to fly airplanes full of innocent people into buildings full of innocent people?  I realize that bin Laden’s death will not end Al Qaeda or terrorism, but it does place an important punctuation mark at the end of a wretched sentence.  It is especially fitting that it should come prior to the tenth anniversary of that horrible day.  One hopes that his death will, in fact, remove some of the obstacles to creating a more peaceful world.

On the other hand, I am uncomfortable with the jubilation and celebration on display throughout the country, even though I understand the sentiment.

I understand the sentiment because I was in the D.C. area that day.  Here are a few personal remembrances:

  • Watching planes landing one after the other at Dulles airport from my office window.
  • Gathering with co-workers around a tiny television and watching in pure disbelief as the South Tower collapsed.
  • My father-in-law worked in the Reagan Building downtown and was evacuated.  I picked him up at the East Falls Church metro station, which transfers from the Blue Line – which stops at Pentagon City.  Everywhere people were running, crying, hugging.  Some were bloody and soot-covered.
  • My sister-in-law had just dropped two of her children off at their preschool, which was a mile away from the Pentagon.  She went to a Target nearby and felt the explosion in the aftermath of the plane hitting the Pentagon.  Thank goodness my niece and nephew were okay, but listening to her relate her fear and confusion on the drive back to the school still makes my stomach twist with grief.
  • One of my best friends from college saw the second plane hit the South Tower from her office window in New York.  She became one of the throngs of people who ran from the collapsing building, and ended up covered from head to toe in soot, ash and debris, but thankfully alive.
  • When my father finally got through to us on the phone that night, he cried – something that rarely happened.  The lines were busy for hours in both D.C. and New York, so loved ones everywhere had to spend that time in agony wondering if friends and family were okay.
  • A couple of weeks later, I went to a business dinner near the Pentagon.  When I left it was dark.  I took a wrong turn and ended up right in front of the gaping maw of the Pentagon.  Seeing the devastation there made me understand how much deeper the scar would be in New York.  I could barely drive home for the tears I cried.
  • We lived a couple of miles away from the CIA building, so day after day after day, and night after night after night, fighter jets swirled around our house, rattling the windows and shaking the floors.  I would wake up in the middle of the night sweating and with the taste of ashes in my mouth after dreaming of planes and bombs and fire.  To this day I cannot stand the sound of military aircraft.

Likewise, there are stories of others that haunt me to this day.

  • A woman whose husband called her from one of the upper floors of the North Tower (above the point of impact), to tell her he loved her and to ask her if she “knew where the paperwork was.”
  • A woman whose daughter, and five-year old granddaughter were on one of the two planes that hit the twin towers and her daughter’s best friend was on the other.  They were planning to surprise the little girl, who thought she was going to New York to visit an aunt, but instead they were taking her to Disney World on a connecting flight.
  • A woman whose sonogram for her first child, initially scheduled for the morning of September 11th, was rescheduled for the 12th.  If the date hadn’t changed, her husband wouldn’t have been at work in the towers that morning.
  • A man clinging to the side of the tower as helicopters circled around, unable to find a way to rescue him before he let go.
  • And on and on and on…

So yes, I do understand the sentiment expressed on the front page of one New York paper this morning:

I understand it, but I don’t agree with it.  For one thing, I believe bin Laden was already in hell, even while still alive.  Whether he was conscious of it or not, he was in a hell of his own making; he had to be in order to perpetrate such horror and live in such madness.

But death is not something that should be celebrated in this fashion.  Celebrations should be reserved for joyful events, such as one that occurred the day before — the Royal Wedding.  Even if bin Laden’s death was considered a necessary part of dismantling Al Qaeda and similar terrorists’ networks, there is no joy in anything associated with him.

On September 18, 2001, I wrote these words to a foreign friend of mine in response to the question of whether the U.S. would retaliate indiscriminately in response to the attacks (Keep in mind that all of the events that happened subsequently in Afghanistan and Iraq were still yet to come).

“There are certainly Americans who want to lash out at others indiscriminately in order to venge the attack on the U.S. last week.  The senseless attacks against Arab Americans are the worst form of evidence that this (minority) view exists.  I am not one of them, nor, do I believe, is our government.  Whatever anyone’s views on U.S. foreign policy has been in the past, I do not think there is a single person in the free world that truly believes that killing innocent people for revenge is what America stands for, or what we aim for in the aftermath of this crisis.”

Yet when you see people partying in the streets, it does make bin Laden’s death seem foremost like a revenge killing.  What bothers me is that I remember those same kinds of celebrations in the streets of Afghanistan and elsewhere after the 9/11 attacks themselves.  If we want to separate ourselves from that kind of hatred, we must hold ourselves to a higher standard of behavior and discourse.  Otherwise we only pay lip service to the ideals we are supposed to stand for and protect.

At the end of that same letter to my friend, I wrote:

“My opinions are rooted in watching the horror that has unfurled itself around our country this week, and the love and unity that has driven it back out.  Yes, our opinions will probably differ.  Quite honestly, that is the very nature of what is at stake here.  The ability for you and me to have very different views and opinions and still be able to co-exist peacefully on this planet.”

In other words, I wish we were not celebrating what divides us, but focusing on what unites us.  Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “Peace and justice are two sides of the same coin.”  If that is indeed the case, and bin Laden’s death is a form of justice, let us now turn to peace.  Peace is the only way forward.

“There is no time left for anything but to make peacework a dimension of our every waking activity.”  — Elise Boulding

Thank you for enduring such a personal post, and a more political one than I usually write on this blog.  It was one I felt I had to write, to bring my own thoughts and feelings that began on September 11, 2001 full circle in light of yesterday’s news.

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22 Comments

  1. Thank you for this very thoughtful and articulate post. It is exactly what I would have said myself if I could have found the words.

    • Thanks Susanna. I really needed to find the words for my own sake, and I’m glad they meant something to you also.

  2. Beautiful post, Julie. Every word rang with sincere wisdom.

    My initial reaction on hearing the news was “Good.”
    Just “Good.”
    One less terrorist in the world.

    But . . . then I watched the news at lunch.
    People are throwing parties?
    To celebrate?
    What are they celebrating?

    The death of one man is not the end to his reign of terror. We can never get “closure” from “out there.”

    If we need closure, it is up to us to do the hard work for forgiving those who step on our freedoms and setting a better example for the rest of the world to follow.

    That said, I still say “Good.”
    I’m glad he’s dead.

    But it’s not cause for celebration.

    Love and Peace will heal wounds faster than Hate.

    • Thank you for your response. Your words are also true. So is the fact that his death will not undo the wreckage or bring back the victims.

  3. Great post, Julie! ! Thanks for sharing!

  4. Thanks for sharing your experience. I think those memories are the ones we should be thinking about as the news sinks in that bin Laden was killed. I watched those planes on TV from a hospital room at my late husband’s side. He was released that day and I wasn’t sure if we could find an open gas station. The rumors were horrible in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. I missed so many of the heartbreaking stories, because well – we had his medical issues to deal with. I’m sure last night’s news has opened a lot of wounds for both survivors and the deceased family members.

    • Stacy,

      I didn’t know you had lost your husband, and I’m so sorry. Your focus was very correctly placed on him at the time of 9/11, but I have no doubt that the news has opened those wounds for you as well.

      Unfortunately, bin Laden’s death does not bring people back or change what has already happened. We can only change what happens into the future. Thanks for your comment!

  5. Great post, and you voiced beautifully what I’ve been a little apprehensive to voice myself.

  6. I so appreciate you taking the time and courage to express what you, I and, I am sure, many others feel about the way the news has been, at times conveyed, and received by some. I love your focus on unity and what unites us ascross the globe.

  7. Lori and Joanna – thanks for your comments. I am glad I was able to give voice to feelings that I think many of us share.

  8. Cities of the Mind

    Really enjoyed this, thank you.

  9. Thank you for putting into words what I have not been able to fully formulate. I have been appalled by the comments I’ve seen on twitter and facebook. “One down, 50 million Muslims to go,” said one. Yes, what bin Laden did was horrendous, but to gleefully celebrate will only serve to anger his followers more. When will the cycle stop?

  10. Julie, I don’t write politically on my blog either, and it frustrated me to not express these exact sentiments. It made me uncomfortable to see so many react with glee at his death. Am I glad he’s dead? I am. Do I want to celebrate it? I do not.

    I’m on the board of The Brooke Jackman Foundation, a literacy charity that was created by the Jackman family. On the night of September 10, they heard from Brooke, a book-loving young woman who called her parents to tell them she’d just decided to quit her job at Cantor Fitzgerald and work with at-risk kids. The next day she was the last call out of the towers before they fell.

    bin Laden is dead. So is Brooke. I cannot celebrate.

    • Katie,

      What an awful story. All of that potential gone. That is exactly why it’s not a call for celebration. It doesn’t bring those people back or fulfill the lost promise of their lives.

  11. Wow, that is a pretty hectic headline on the Daily News.

    And I understand EXACTLY what you’re saying. I’ve also felt quite uncomfortable about the levels of celebration going on around the world. Though I understand why, it just doesn’t seem right to be celebrating death like this… It is still a very serious situation and I don’t think anyone should forget the very real possibility of retaliation for Bin Laden’s death.

  12. Similar thing happened when Ted Bundy died. The guy who interviewed him last said there was a festival atmosphere going on outside and around the area when he was due to be executed and it made him feel a bit sick.

    However, having lost nobody to either Ted Bundy or Osama I can’t really say that I wouldn’t be celebrating as well. If, for that many years, he was the face of all your pain and for almost a decade that face is still smiling on the papers when all you feel is emptiness and sorrow underneath that anger, you might lose/probably will lose yourself and celebrating as much as it may seem so awful for a man who’s dead, might just be something these people that he has in his life utterly destroyed, that they need to do to move on and have a positive future.

    • I think there is a difference between personal and public celebration. Personally, I am glad bin Laden is dead, as I am sure are the victims’ loved ones. But all in all, this whole affair and everything surrounding it, beginning with 9/11 and even before, is very solemn and not cause for jubilation. IMHO.

  13. I also felt that it was inappropriate to be outwardly celebrating this death. We all wanted him gone, but it sent a bad message to see people cheering loudly.

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