For the rest of my life I think I will remember where I was the moment I heard Chris shout from across the apartment “They killed Osama bin Laden.”
I was in the room that will become Thumper’s nursery, vacuuming rugs. The room was bright with sunshine, a rarity here in Chengdu, and I stood barefoot in a pair of black tights and an oversized faded chambray shirt I pinched from Chris’ closet to cover my growing belly.
Like a lot of other people, I have no interest in celebrating a man’s death-even a man as vile as bin Laden. That being said, it was more of an emotional moment for me than I had ever counted on. It was like the feeling that comes with the end of a sigh, the nearly untraceable relief of an exhale.
It’s been nearly ten years since that other bright, sunny day that changed our world, my world. On that day I was a teenager. I watched the towers fall on tv surrounded by my journalism class and I suddenly found myself standing in front of the tv cart as if in a trance, hysterically screaming over and over “my uncle is in that building, my uncle is in there.”
Turns out he was. There was no way I could have known then but at that moment when the first tower fell he was on his way up the stairs to rescue people. Already a decorated Rescue 1 firefighter, he made the ultimate sacrifice that day leaving behind the love of his life and his two young sons.
And so began a surreal nightmare for my extended family, for our whole country. I don’t remember the big things so much, but the little details are branded into my memory forever. The bright blue sky, the eerily silent high school lunch hour. The teachers numb and helpless to comfort. All of the patriotic songs that played on the country radio stations 24/7. Riding in the car with my father and turning to see silent tears streaming down his cheeks.
My extended family in New York, and especially my aunt suffered far, far more than we did in the days and months and years that followed and far more than I can even imagine,. Even so, that day changed my life in unexpected ways.
In some ways, paradoxically, that was the day that set me on a path to leave home, to travel and care about the wider world and all of the problems in it. When you realize that nowhere is safe from danger and heartache, you have a lot less to lose by leaving the nest. 9/11 changed the career path I chose, the friends I made, the political beliefs I hold, and even the Foreign Service life I live today.
In a weird way, I can’t imagine my life without Osama bin Laden and all he represented to the American people.
When the towers fell, people united but then later divided. Over silly things like “freedom fries,” over big things like the best way to confront evil: fire power or education and economic development; Iraq or Afghanistan and Pakistan. I began to see my friends in a new light as I saw some choose to hate all Muslims with a blind fury while others held on to the more nuanced stance that every religion has a few ugly beliefs in its holy book, every country has a few bad apples.
But for all of the debate and division and fear spread over the past 10 years, Osama bin Laden in strange ways also united us. We could all agree that, even if his followers weren’t driven by pure, maniacal, evil urges, he was. He remained a spector, a ghost of terrors past lurking in the shadows. In our collective imaginations, he became a man of mythical proportions whose power could turn our worlds upside down again with a simple phone call, but whose destruction might also promise an end to the fear and a return to peace and security. It was convenient to have just one man to fear and loathe so completely.
Which is why the news left me feeling both moved and deflated. Osama bin Laden may be dead and buried at the bottom of the ocean, but I don’t think the world is any more peaceful than it was on Sunday morning.
On one hand, I’m very proud of the gutsy actions taken by our President and armed forces. I think this operation will also finally expose, for once and for all, just how twisted the Pakistan military’s relationship is with al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. On the other hand, I’ve seen far too many t-shirts with Osama’s face on them and met far too many admiring people to believe his death has truly made the world a safer place. There is still so much hard work left to do.
And at the same time, Osama bin Laden’s death feels like a bookend of sorts. As a teenager I witnessed him capture the fury and imaginations of the American people and now as a young adult, living overseas, with a baby on the way, his death seems like the end of an era in modern history. What will come next? Does every generation ultimately feel this way about something in their past?
It makes me sad that even the violent death of my generation’s biggest boogeyman will not automatically grant peace and security for my son’s future and so I wonder what he will witness, what world events will mark and shape his young life. I hope for his sake, they are mostly happy ones. A cure for malaria, a cure for AIDS, clean energy alternatives, economic growth in the most violent and hopeless of neighborhoods around the world. That’s what I hope for. Ultimately though, it’s up to us now to make those beautiful things happen for our children, to create a future so much better than our past that there is no place for a man like Osama bin Laden to gain power in it.
For the most fitting tribute we can make to such a man is not a celebration, but to render his legacy and all that he stood for irrelevant; a forgettable, regrettable footnote in a history book that our children read from someday with nothing to fear.