This year, the anniversary of the attacks of September 11, 2001 is unlike most other years. Now, we can say that the man responsible for the unthinkable tragedy — Osama bin Laden — is dead.
For a great many, that’s a reason to cheer. There’s something glorious about recounting the fact that American soldiers were able to bring the world’s most wanted terrorist to justice. But in our haste to honor our fallen brethren and commemorate this day, celebrating the bloody and gruesome death of an “enemy” is the wrong response.
On Monday night’s episode of 60 Minutes, a program I have long considered to be the epitome of quality journalism and reporting, the full hour was dedicated the sensational story of how SEAL Team Six carried out the mission that killed bin Laden. The story, which was based on a newly released book titled No Easy Day, featured an equal dose of suspense and horror: The helicopter crash, breaking through the Pakistani compound, killing bin Laden’s son as he poked his head around the corner, returning fire on armed combatants, eventually shooting bin Laden in his face, and wiping the blood off of his body in order to photograph it, load it in a bag, and whisk it away under the dark of night. 60 Minutes made it clear in their introduction that the interview — and the release of the book — were calculated to coincide with this year’s anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
There’s no denying that the men and women who carried out that mission were brave souls. And there should be no shortage of support for their commitment to protect the United States, its citizens, and defend its values against violent enemies. Yet the details of bin Laden’s death — which will likely be replayed over and over again until they become a mindless mantra — have the potential to mar what should be a day of national unity, prayer, and peace. Instead, it is likely that the terrorist’s bloody face will circulate on the internet, President Obama’s speech announcing the news of bin Laden’s death will be repeated on media networks, and newspaper headlines will somehow reference the May 2011 killing in order to fill the insatiable appetite that humans have for revenge and triumph.
One of my favorite columnists, Glenn Greenwald, has noted the ways in which this obsession with violence and killing — even if it is the killing of a man who himself was unquestionably cold and violent — reveals a social sickness. The Democratic National Convention was evidence of that. The fact of Bin Laden’s death was practically beaten into the audience’s psyche. If the Republicans are tough on terror, said the Democrats, why didn’t they kill bin Laden? Ask bin Laden if he’s better off now than he was four years ago, they begged.
This type of nationalistic flag waving serves no real purpose. It may make some of us feel better about the fact that, 11 years ago today, we suffered a major blow by terrorists who view violence as a divinely inspired answer to frustrations and grievances. But that’s only temporary. Parading bin Laden’s death around as a prized achievement doesn’t bring back loved ones, nor does it end terrorism. It does, however, sustain a climate of vengeance and competition — of us versus them — that makes any future of peaceful relations between the United States and countries of the Middle East more difficult. Let’s honor our friends, loved ones, and fellow Americans whose lives were affected that Tuesday in 2001 by remembering them — not glorifying the demise of a violent man who is not worth so much space in our collective memory.