Global Politics

The meaning of Bin Laden for America

Osama-celebration.jpg

Hundreds of students celebrated the demise of Osama Bin Laden on Boston Common early Monday morning (photo: Jess Bidgood/WGBH)

By Marco Werman

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How do you celebrate the death of someone who had brought the United States to its knees? After all, Osama bin Laden is a man who produced images and sentiments that were previously unimaginable in the American psyche.

Think of any number of witnesses in New York who clearly observed the second jet plow into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. "It blew out the middle of the building, a huge fireball," one man recalled. "(The plane) was there one second, and then just exploded."

Or the man who tried to give help to a woman who emerged barely alive from the World Trades that morning. "She didn't even remember her name," said the man. "She was just covered in blood, her face was all burned. I've never been in a combat situation. This was about as close as you're going to get."

Or the President, who had been derided by his opponents as a cowboy, and then a few days after Sept. 11, actually cast the new reality in terms of a Hollywood western: "I want justice," said Mr. Bush. "And there's an old poster out west as I recall, 'Wanted: Dead or alive.'"
Tribute to heroes

Several nights after Bush issued the dead-or-alive proclamation for Bin Laden, musicians and actors gathered on national television. It was sombre-casual. Neil Young sang "Imagine." Many other celebrities joined the "tribute to heroes" by singing down-tempo tunes, making solemn pronouncements, and generally crystallizing the new national sobriety. Culturally, they telegraphed that things would now be different for the US and the world.

So what changed? "After Sept. 11, I think there was an immediate response," said David Peisner, a contributing writer for the music magazine Spin. He remembered the benefit concerts.

But he said "it took people, it took the arts community a while to kind of find their feet. If you think about especially the music community began speaking out against Bush and took a fairly anti-Bush slant," explained Peisner. "But it took a long time for that to happen."

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, the US knew immediately who had done that. Sept. 11 was different. Some insiders knew pretty quickly who was in charge of the attacks. But the idea that a man like Osama Bin Laden thousands of miles away could do this was a whole new concept for Americans. That bin Laden and his methods were so different was in itself powerful says Lawrence Wright, a longtime Bin Laden watcher, and the author of "The Looming Tower."

"The imagery that he drummed up which is a man in a cave declaring war on America was very powerful," Wright said. "And of course for many Americans it just seemed absurd that somebody with such a disproportionate lack of power could hope to wage any kind of campaign against America. On the other hand, that imagery resonated with a lot of Muslims for whom the cave is very significant because that's where the prophet Mohammed received his instructions to write the Koran, and that's where he took refuge, so there was a lot of imagery that bin Laden was playing upon."
Understanding the imagery of Sept. 11

According to Wright, a lot of Americans didn't understand that imagery. Even some in the US intelligence community didn't get it. Many Americans simply wanted vengeance. As Wright explains, many people around the world – like the living victims of the 1998 al-Qaeda bombings in Kenya and Tanzania who were permanently blinded by flying glass – also are celebrating based on what they've lived through.

"There's no doubt that we've been seeking vengeance, and in some respects we've achieved it," Wright said. "I think it's appropriate to say 'we're glad he's gone.' And I think it's appropriate to remember the victims, so many thousands of them not just Americans, but all over the world. And so many of them are Muslims. In fact the preponderance of them are. You know the cries of 'USA, USA.' Just think about the 150 blind Africans in Nairobi, we should remember they have reason to celebrate as well."

The news of Osama bin Laden's death produced a wide range of emotions. Celebration in front of the White House was one of the first gut reactions, along with those chants of "USA! USA!"

David Peisner of Spin said he was initially taken aback by those celebrations cheering Bin Laden's death. "You just don't see people in America cheering somebody's death."

But I think in some ways that speaks to the country's need to find something to cheer about, find something to agree on. You've got Washington divided, but there's no one who doesn't agree with the idea that Osama is better dead than alive.

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