I keep asking myself this question since the US media outlets began announcing that President Obama was preparing to make a special statement. Ironically, I was watching Donald Trump start to rip Star Jones a new one on “Celebrity Apprentice” (which I never watch), and the first ticker break came through at the bottom of my television screen. Then my boyfriend texted me saying that he was waiting for the President to speak before he went to bed.
Obama’s announcement of Bin Laden’s death came as a surprise to me. I knew in the back of my mind that the US government still wanted to find him, but I didn’t worry about his whereabouts or what he’d been up to. I’ve lived in New York City for almost twelve years, so the threat of a terrorist action has been part of my life here since 2001. I don’t let it stop my day-to-day actions, but I’m aware that I choose to make my home in a city full of soft targets. I live just a few blocks from Union Square (a major subway hub for seven trains), and then about two miles from Times Square and Ground Zero.
Sunday evening’s announcement and the subsequent celebrations broadcast by the media left me feeling more than unnerved and confused. I watched the reports and followed some comments on Twitter. My colleague Bryan tweeted that he was feeling uncomfortable with the scenes of celebration over Bin Laden’s death, and he retweeted some others expressing similar sentiments. I went to bed feeling less alone about my views, yet still unsettled by the scenes of Americans celebrating someone’s death, even if it was Osama bin Laden.
Details about the killing of Bin Laden have come to light over the past two days, and those details seem to be changing moment to moment. As I check in with various news outlets throughout the day, I can’t help but wonder why the US couldn’t get the details clear before saying anything specific. Couldn’t the President have announced Bin Laden’s death and then shared specifics once they were verified by multiple US sources? I was particularly upset to learn that children were present in the compound in Pakistan as the raid unfolded. Equally disturbing is the digital sequence created by ABC News that shows a woman lunging at Navy SEALs, indicating her “reason” for being shot in the calf.
And now the country’s leaders engage in a debate over whether to release graphic pictures of Bin Laden’s corpse. Sarah Palin tweets that Obama should stop “pussy-footing” around and release the pictures. In a moment when a lot of people are expressing pride about being an American, I’m not feeling so proud. Privileged to live in a democratic republic like the US, yes, but not particularly proud of how some of my fellow citizens are behaving.
CNN and The New York Times reported today about why college-aged young people led many of the public celebrations. The Times article by Kate Zernike cites that these young people have grown up with the image of Bin Laden as the most evil person in the world. Hence, the need to celebrate his death on Sunday evening. However, I was also struck by the article’s mention of Neil Howe’s comment that this generation likes to see things in polarized terms (my words), meaning that evil is evil and good is good. There’s no room for anything in between. In other words, shades of gray are not so prevalent in the Crayola Box of Life for this young generation. I would take this a step further and say that this sentiment is true for many Americans regardless of age.
Seeing the gray in a situation allows us to have compassion and empathy for the experiences of others. Over the last three days, I’ve spent time thinking about how the families who lost loved ones on 9/11 might be feeling about the end of the decade-long hunt for the man who instigated the murder of their relatives. I also think about my brother-in-law, who spent a year in Iraq with the Army reserves, once the war in Iraq began. He and countless others have invested time and energy into protecting our country from people like Osama bin Laden.
Yet I’ve also found myself thinking about what those children in that compound must have seen and heard as the helicopters came over the 13ft walls. Or what they must have thought as the gunfire started and people were killed. I shudder to think that it was happening in front of them, just like the fall of the Twin Towers happened in front of so many young people here in New York City. And then I think about the woman, supposedly one of Bin Laden’s wives, who rushed the SEALs. Really? Really? Was her action out of a sense of duty to a terrorist or out of a sense of love for her husband? We won’t ever know. But these are things I’m thinking about, the gray moments in these situations.
A friend told me that he posted an MLK quotation on his Facebook page in response to the celebrations, and someone accused him of being pro-terrorist. I say it again: Really? Really?
This is what I mean about gray Crayons in the Crayola Box. There are multiple perspectives to every story and every situation. Just because I consider these perspectives does not make me a terrorist sympathizer. It makes me a human being committed to dialogue and understanding. Maybe if we tried to think through actions like celebrating Bin Laden’s death with a little more sensitivity, we would avoid undoing the positive effects of the death of a terrorist who has directly or indirectly killed thousands of people.
When we publicly celebrate a death and chant things like “Osama Osama hey hey hey goodbye” I don’t feel like we’re living up to the ideals of our supposedly superior American society. Actually, it just makes me feel embarrassed to be an American.