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.Categories: Uncategorized · Tags: Al Qaeda, Death of Osama bin Laden, Osama bin Laden, Peace, Pentagon, September 11, Twin Towers