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V-OBL Day…

Pres. Obama & Staff in Sit. Room (The White House)
Sunday, President Barack Obama announced that United States Special Forces had located and killed al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden.  The ruthless head of the terrorist organization had been found in Abbottabad, a suburb of the Pakistani capital of Islamabad.

Almost anything we can say on the matter has already been said by the almost seizure-inducing rush of media coverage that suddenly and amazingly hit Americans as they sat at home closing out an otherwise quiet weekend.   True, al-Qaeda’s power is not directly affected by bin Laden’s death.  Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula based in Yemen has largely supplanted the efforts to export terror to American shores and those of its allies.  Still there is hope his death will diminish his status as a symbol or give his successor or successors pause before they come to the fore.

That said, I would like to say a few words.  It appears en vogue to consider bin Laden’s death to be an appropriate bookend to a traumatic chapter in American life.  The threat is not gone, indeed it may never be.  Something still stirred many, mostly young people, people my age to flood college campuses, the streets around Ground Zero, Lafayette Park and Boston Common, the latter three all in big college towns.

In any event there is little doubt that 9/11 and Osama bin Laden has been a defining characteristic of this generation.  My generation.

I was a freshman in high school when 9/11 happened.  I cannot say that i was personally frightened by the events.  They were shocking less because of the enormity of the attack than because my mother and I had visited the Twin Towers less than a month before.  We did not want to take a later train and dismissed a visit to the South Tower’s observatory saying “they’ll be there when we come back.”  Needless to say, they were not.

It during my study period that I first heard the news.  The teacher who oversaw that particular block had been listening to the radio and told us what happened. The next period, gym, the announcement came over the loud speaker, which added that the towers had collapsed.  For the most part, the day’s schedule continued uninterrupted, but periodic updates were piped into classrooms.  I went home otherwise as usual, only to turn on the television and see what had, up to then, only been described by radios and public address systems.  That night, the Holyoke Mall, where my mother worked closed early.

The paranoia, war and stepped up security procedures ensued.  A generation came of age amongst a new normal.  Notably, however, it survived it.  A classmate in college class I took on American society wrote a paper on how Harry Potter was something of an equivalent to growing up the age of terror.  Although author J.K. Rowling began writing the books years before 9/11, domestic terrorism was not unheard of in Great Britain.  Therefore, especially after 9/11, the idea that life goes on might take on an American context.  Young people make new friends, confront growing pains, lose loved ones and fall in love even as terror, in that case Voldemort, always looms large.

Bin Laden in 1997 (wikipedia)
In some ways the celebration of the end of a human life, even one as wretched as bin Laden’s (this blog tweeted that death was too good an outcome for him), was a little gauche.  While such celebration might have happened if bin Laden had been killed in say, 2003, his evasion of our widely cast nets only served as a further reminder of the seeming eternity of full body scanners, war, high bomb-sniffing dog to person ratios and fear.  His death, also an improbable prospect, itself proves that the others listed may not last forever either.  That is not to say that we should stop being vigilant.  Quite the contrary.  However, we might be able to stop holding our breath and take stock of our situation.  One pundit suggested that we should have a new 9/11 commission, one that assesses whether what we have done over this past decade has worked and what has not.

On an individual level, if subconsciously, 9/11 perhaps served as a bulwark against more of my generation slipping into spiral of selfishness and hedonism.  Too often it seems like too many people only think of others to the extent that they receive a tweet or a text back.  Many others did feel inspired, often by the events of 9/11.  Those that learned the most from it, however, did not stop with a pint of blood on September 12th.  They continued to serve and to work and to think of their fellow man.  Others were called to public service.
This is essential if we are to find the right balance between living our lives and protecting them.  Hysterical solutions are not the answer.  I know this best, when in my zeal to get involved, I start bombarded news reporters emails with self-aggrandizing statements.  Likewise we can consider an example in the national context over the need and effectiveness of “security theater.”

If there is one simple lesson, one that we all knew and certainly bin Laden realized in his final moments was that the United States would outlast al-Qaeda.  It cannot outlast terrorism in general, anymore than it can outlast disease.  However, it can outlast the people and even the ideologies that utilize it.  Still, bin Laden did succeed in taking nearly 10,000 American lives between 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  A conservative estimate of the cost, let alone economic damage, exceeds $6 trillion dollars.  We may have delivered justice upon him, but it has not been without a price.  The choice that we face is whether we can maintain that unity and resist a return to complacent selfishness while ensuring that the price we have paid does not continue to grow.