Monday, May 2, 2011

World News Reactions

Osama bin Laden
Source: Wikipedia
Well, this is unexpected...

I actually went through my entire morning of checking e-mails and preparing for my day before learning that, last night at 23:30 (05:30 here in London), American forces found and killed Osama bin Laden outside a military academy in Pakistan.

So my lunch hour was spent in semi-shock and by dinner I was watching the BBC.

Now, this isn't a political blog or a news blog. I'm not overly knowledgeable about the world's socio-political climate at present. But I try to keep tabs on things and this man's death marks a milestone in a conflict that, many would say, has shaped my generation. In addition, everyone is talking about this right now and there are a lot of repeated sentiments, yet I still think that I can add something to the conversation.

For these reasons, primarily, I felt I should write this.

A lot of people have said that these past few months will go down in the history books as the "Arab Spring." It even seems that most news commentators have adopted the phrase officially into their reports and editorials. The flash fire of these revolutions throughout the Muslim world has been tremendous to watch, and I can imagine that future historians might mark this unrelated event as being a capstone to those prior events.

Again, my knowledge of world politics is scarce. I don't know if the Arab Spring is coming to an end (or some kind of standstill at the very least) or if it is showing signs of escalating even farther. I could, perhaps, make some educated guesses based on what I know about historical wars and revolutions. I could also easily do a search for news and editorials about the revolutions to see what the current climate is like. But that's not what I want to talk about here. I simply mention it because I see a narrative association between the two events.

In continuing with this narrative theme, I also find it interesting that American forces caught bin Laden shortly before the tenth anniversary of 9/11. The even measurement of a full decade adds a solid, structural resonance to the event. An echo, if you will, from that day to this one. Does it mean anything, on a cosmic scale? *shrug* Probably not. But it feels more comfortable that way.

I remember watching the towers fall. My mother told me that we were watching history being made, but I didn't feel much of anything. I had not concept of what the World Trade Center was. I was twelve years old. You don't really have a firm grasp of global economics and Jihad when you're twelve. I don't think I even knew what a Muslim was at the time (something that I have since learned I should probably be ashamed about, given their prevalence throughout most of the world.)

I remember also the fear that settled over the nation after the attacks, and the waves of hatred and cries for justice that carried us into war. I was swept up in that wave along with most of the nation, but none of it ever seemed to directly affect me. It was all more or less background stuff that I made apply to the way I thought because that's what I understood to be important.

That's kind of how I feel about this.

Am I glad he's gone? Sure. But it's not elation or relief or an outpouring of righteous justice and approval. It's more of an acceptance. Okay. He's gone. That's a big step, I realize. We've been working toward that for a long time now. What's going to happen next?

That was probably my main reaction. After the initial "Wait, what? Wow!" I quickly turned to thinking beyond the excitement. I started to wonder why we hadn't tried to take him alive. I started worrying about the eventual retaliation. I tried to think about what it would have been like to life on the run, knowing you were at the top of America's Most Wanted list, for ten years.

Then I watched the BBC. And I watched as they went through their three or four questions over and over again with different people for about an hour.

How do you feel? What is the retaliation going to be like? Will this help or hinder Al Qaeda's influence and recruitment? How did Pakistan not know he was there if he was living so close to a Military Academy?

So on and so on. And there were Americans both cheering and making me ashamed. There were foreign leaders using too many words to say either "It's not over yet," or "No comment." There were numerous specialists and field reporters all giving their take on it. But everyone was basically saying the same few things.

1. A symbol of the purest evil has been removed from the world.
2. No one knows what's going to happen in the Middle East.
3. Pakistan and America are not going to be on good terms after this.

The more I watched, though, the more I started trying to see it from the other side. I started thinking of bin Laden as a person, a man driven to do terrible things in order to bring about a cause that he sees as just. We know what many of the radical Islamic groups teach in regards to the necessity of violence. If you think of a man trapped in that lifestyle by both his own choices and circumstances beyond his control (Soviet invasion of his homeland, etc.), then you begin to build sympathy for the man and begin to see him as relate-able instead of despicable.

Or at least I do. In fact, my two favorite moments from the entire hour of BBC coverage had to do with downplaying this man's significance. One segment simply talked about bin Laden's upbringing and eventually built up to talking about how he started working as a terrorist financier. Again, if you watch a person grow up, you have a lot more sympathy for him.

The second was a brief statement from a woman grieving by Ground Zero who said that, sure, she was relieved that bin Laden wouldn't kill anyone anymore and that her children wouldn't have to grow up in a world that has him in it, but it wouldn't bring her husband back. That was a refreshing bit of news coverage that struck home for me far more than the dozens in a crowd chanting "USA! USA!" or the guy with fundamentally flawed theology talking about his dead wife "smiling down from heaven and feeling satisfied that bin Laden is rotting in Hell where he belongs." (Loosely quoted. It was a brief exchange that left my skin crawling, honestly. I keep forgetting that there are people out there who honestly think like this.)

I'm sorry, but I really have a hard time these days totally demonizing a human being. Yes, he did terrible things and organized even more. But nobody's innocent. And we're all capable of doing those things if given the opportunity and the right motivation.

That's the thing that has a hold on my mind right now. I don't know when this notion got there, but I can tell that it's been growing, and I know it's true. We're all only a few short steps from the kind of terrible things that we hate, hunt, and hang others over. And we all know it.

The best villain doesn't frighten us because of what he is or what he does. He terrifies us because he gives us a glimpse of what we might become. Because, in the end, we're all just people. There's nothing that makes any one of us inherently better or worse than the rest.

Thank you for listening. Again, I apologize for this diversion. I hope it has left you with something new to think about. Regular posts will resume tomorrow.


  1. I really like this piece, Josh. It's really well-thought out.

    I've been struggling to figure out how I feel about the whole situation and maybe it's because we're abroad that we'll never really understand it fully. I do agree that some people definitely took the celebrating out of hand. Did your university back home have marches around campus/go wild?

    -Michelle from BLC

  2. I also did a post on this. After reading yours then re-reading mine it became so extremely obvious how much better a writer you are. I largely agree with your views here. You expressed my sentiment better than I could. Thank you for that.

    To your point about villains: It is true we all have the capacity for great evil. We must look at the evil man with compassion in our hearts and yet we must do justice. Our civility demands it. It is a fine line to walk to show compassion toward another human soul realizing we are essentially no different while at the same time not allowing ourselves too much common ground that we exonerate the evildoer from his inexcusable deeds. That's probably not a conflict for anyone when it comes to Osama bin Laden, however.