Beyond anything, I feel relief. Gratitude.
There has been this hole, an absence, that has defined America in the past decade. The events of September 11th, harrowing and heartbreaking, helped to define my generation. As someone who’s political consciousness was born from the rubble of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the shining moment of unity afterwards, I think it would be hard to define what I am feeling now as anything but relief. It is the end of an era, for sure, but an end that has been shocking, jarring, and sudden. It shouldn’t be, this is an aspect to what the War on Terror has been attempting to achieve for years, sacrificing the men and women of our Armed Forces and intelligence community who are far more courageous than I.
It is as if the hole left in our lives and communities by the aftermath of 9/11 became a black hole of sorts, rapidly shifting our center of gravity to its unseen depths. “The attacks will become a defining reference point for our culture and imagination, a question of before and after, safe and scarred.” I remember slowly rebuilding my life around the knowledge that it happened. It was like relearning how to speak, forcing myself to use a new lexicon so I would have the words to describe something so horrible. But also something hopeful. As Nancy Gibbs stated, “On a normal day, we value heroism because it is uncommon. On Sept. 11, we valued heroism because it was everywhere…When one world ended at 8:45 on Tuesday morning, another was born, one we always trust in but never see, in which normal people become fierce heroes and everyone takes a test for which they haven’t studied. As President Bush said in his speech to the nation, we are left with both a terrible sadness and a quiet unyielding anger. He was wrong, though, to talk of the steel of our resolve. Steel, we now know, bends and melts; we need to be made of something stronger than that now… Because the faith is in the act of building, not the building itself, and no amount of terror can keep us from scraping the sky.”
My sense of identity shifted, too. I didn’t realize it at first, but it helped me define my career and the dedication of my life to public service. It has changed how I talk to others, and how I listen. It encouraged me to go to India, Egypt, and Syria to learn and grow. It changed what I defined as American, especially in myself.
One thing I do not feel, however, is celebratory. I cannot celebrate another human’s death. It contradicts the definition of America that I have discovered over the past decade. I understand why someone could cheer for his death, but I have to admit that the cheering crowds chanting “USA! USA! USA!” outside the White House last night was disconcerting. We should not be celebrating the death of an individual, but solemnly marking a horrific event’s closure. In Obama’s speech to the nation, the President noted we must be “relentless to in defense of our citizens and our friends and allies,” but also to stay “true to the values that make us who we are.” He continued, “we can say to those families who have lost loved ones to al Qaeda’s terror: Justice has been done.” It is important to remember that these families are not just American, but African, Afghan, Pakistani, and Arab – that the victims are not just those who have died, but also tortured, discriminated against, and vilified. Osama bin Laden victimized the world, and his demise will hopefully provide an ability to move forward together in pursuit of justice and reconciliation.
For a more in-depth understanding, Steve Coll has a succinct, unbiased summary of the operation, and more information about bin Laden’s death will undoubtedly emerge in the coming days. Initial responses to the news have been varied. Tony Karon says that bin Laden’s death no longer really matters as the Muslims around the world recognize that peaceful, united, democratic change contains more power than a single act of violence. William McCants says it may or may not, but either way – bin Laden’s death leaves a gaping hole. Despite the symbolic step toward defeating Al-Qaeda, terrorism will undoubtedly endure Osama bin Laden. Daniel Byman says in Foreign Policy that the death of Osama bin Laden is not the end of terrorism or Al-Qaeda, but, unlike Byman, I sincerely hope that it is a turning point that will force international discourse to revolve around something other than the gaping hole left by 9/11. The nature of our post-9/11 has given us a paradigm tinged with the grotesque reality that is terrorism, anger, and war.
Terrorism, however, is not new or unique to the past ten or twenty years. Propaganda-by-Deed, which is all terrorism really boils down to, has long since been a tool of those who feel a lack of alternative. The globe’s increasing focus on terrorism since 9/11, often forsaking the realities of poverty, disease, and civil war, has only strengthened its ability to assert that propaganda in a more visible and horrifying way. In all my time in the Muslim world, no one I encountered – even those who were staunchly anti-American – supported the violence of bin Laden or attacks on American civilians. In fact, they resented the label many Americans have given them and their religion, often offering empathy and understanding concerning the violence. Many of my friends understood that American public opinion, and occasionally policy, saw them as terrorists first and Muslims second, and sometimes that those labels were interchangeable. It is wholly untrue, and they are the victims of bad policy rooted in a paradigm dominated by terrorism. And, while it will be years before a wholly new paradigm can emerge, I believe that our focus should be on investing in a strategy of development and diplomacy not mired in counter-terrorism strategy. That a policy and attitude based on dialogue, not discrimination, emerges – as Obama originally hoped for in September 2001. I hope that it will bring an end to the human rights abuses performed on behalf of counter-terrorism, and the blind anger born from fear, xenophobia, and ignorance. I also hope that it will focus on the ongoing protests in Syria, Bahrain, Yemen and Libya, as well as support burgeoning democracies in Tunisia and Egypt.
This is an opportunity for Americans to re-engage with the world, to understand it in a new way. That the spirit of unity empowers us. That the faces and sacrifices of protestors of the Arab Spring will replace Osama bin Laden as the symbol of the Arab and Muslim world for Americans. And that we have the opportunity to create a new paradigm that engages others instead of ostracizing them, and our future can be based on justice, trust, hope, and the mutual belief in creating a better world. A world where our center of gravity is not a hole defined by violence and loss, but of growth and peace.
Let us hope so. Insha’Allah.
When it comes to terrorism, Al-Qaeda, Afghanistan/Pakistan, and policy, I am no expert. I have been told so many times, and, often, I agree. (In fact on an exam for the “The Challenge of Terrorism” last year, I took my brother’s advice and drew Godzilla crushing terrorism when I didn’t know the answer to an essay question. Not expert-like, I guarantee.) This opinion sprouts solely from my experience, both as an American living in the Muslim world and as a young woman who’s political awakening and identity has been largely defined by the events of the past decade. I’m constantly growing and changing. Through that growth and change, I am attempting to understand the world more, and I am unendingly proud to say that being an American has allowed me to do so.