The crowd in front of the White House after the announcement of Osama bin Laden's death
I was shaving in the dorm bathroom on September 11, 2001 when my roommate interrupted me with the news. He was a black metal kid with a twisted sense of humor, so at first I didn't believe him. But there was an shocked honesty to his face I'd never seen before.
And, there it was. By complete chance, 9/11 was my first day as a journalist. I had a preliminary assignment to interview the head of one of the library's special collections. Like a lot of people hit by news bigger than I could comprehend, I stumbled about doing what I'd planned, only to find the poor old man with his head buried in his hands, unable to speak. I came back another day.
Talking to my mother the next night, I ended a long conversation with the following: “I think a lot of people are going to die.”
That last comment was the closest I came to a glimpse of what would unfold over the next decade. In the coming years, friends went to protests, signed up for war and came back with nightmares. I don't think any of us will ever lose the old feeling of dread every time we see a crowd of people gathered around the news.
I got word of bin Laden's death over Twitter, while enjoying a night with an old friend, and our first reaction was shocked happiness. At my alma mater, students poured into the streets and rousted the chancellor out of bed to make a speech.
My generation spent its first decade of adulthood living in the fallout of bin Laden's actions. With his death, that time, in a very real sense, is over. Untangling the ensuing feelings, my own included, isn't easy, which is why this post has waited for almost three days.
More on what's behind the end of an era, below the cut.
What's there? Relief that an extremely evil man won't be able to cause more evil. A small bit of pride, that his end demonstrated the way it should be done (i.e. precise, without bombing the whole neighborhood flat), versus the way it too often is.
Regret, at the amount of stupid errors made along the way, including many we're still mired in. As I wrote after my visit to Ground Zero in 2005, "In a better world Osama bin Laden's head would be on a pike and George W. Bush would have been a washed-up political failure."
Instead we got this one, but it is a world where bin Laden is finally dead, and so a little better than before. But there is still a long road to hoe; a lot of delusions were entrenched in the last 10 years.
I hope, though it's doubtful, that among the last things bin Laden saw were images of the recent uprisings in the Middle East. I can't think of a better “fuck you” to his creed than a generation of young protesters chanting “Muslim, Christian, we are all Egyptian.” The sight of followers of different religions protecting each other as they demanded democracy gave hope that tomorrow has no place for him or his kind.
Fuck you, Al Qaeda.
The reaction seems to be a generational divide: skepticism, at least to my eyes, is more prevalent among the older, while the celebratory crowds were young.
Honestly, given all the pent-up fear of the last decade — and some of its uglier manifestations — a night of cheering and sign-waving is mild. My own first gut feeling, “good fucking riddance,” was celebratory. So be it. Bin Laden deserved what he got, royally, and I'm not going to lecture people, especially my generation, for acting like human beings instead of saints.
The basis behind vengeance, that horrible actions should have direct consequences, will always be a part of justice, whatever anyone tells you. The world is full of monsters, and the sad truth is that many of them will never face their deserved retribution. But that does not change the fact that this time, one got what he deserved.
I was 18 when the Twin Towers collapsed; the college students shouting in the streets were children. It is impossible to put into words the massive impact this has had on our lives and the world we've had to deal with.
The main feeling I encountered from my peers was palpable relief, and I think that, more than bloodlust, drove much of the spontaneous celebration. It's done.
That's not entirely rational, but it's real. For a whole generation, bin Laden was the phantom who set our cities on fire and thrust our future into chaotic fear. I remember lying awake at night, wondering if the only thing we had to look forward to was a bloody spiral down into another dark age.
No, it's not. Despite all the decade's terrors, there are enough signs of better that hope is not insane. Now the phantom is dead, and if the illusion of the omnipotent supervillain terrorist dies with him, as it should, then we are better for it.
Instead there was just a human, a corpse now, and other humans can fight what the horrible have done.
Decades don't move by the years. Finally, the 'aughts have ended. It has been a long time. Too long. With far too many casualties. We have a lot of problems to face.