Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Death of bin Laden

My recent post discussing the first baseball game in New York after the 9/11 attacks dealt with the collective experience of 9/11 but only in a very peripheral sense. Of course, now circumstances are such that I must again discuss this event, something I'm never completely comfortable doing. Although my experience that day was not insignificant, there are so many others whose loss, horror and transcendence from this tragedy has been articulated with more eloquence than anything I might offer up.

Osama bin Laden is dead. On the morning of 9/11, as I was fleeing the World Financial Center, after everyone had concluded that the act of flying two jetliners into a building was not the result of profound negligence, I tried to imagine who was responsible. Saddham Hussein or Osama bin Laden - these were the obvious culprits we all discussed as we made our way north up the West Side.

I'd made my way out of 3 World Financial Center with Donal Lanaghan, a barrel chested Irishman. "I'll tell you one 'ting," Donal offered in his sandpaper Dublin accent, "we're going to step on someone's neck for 'dis!"

Later as we got closer to Chelsea Peers, a man was standing in the median of the West Side Highway screaming. He'd passed into a zone where he was communicating to no one but himself, doing so at the top of his lungs. "We gonna take those mutha'fuckahs out TO-NIGHT!"

His was a primal outpouring, enormously necessary. Although the shock of the events of the past hour had not yet worn off, I could not help but to ask the question in my mind, "who exactly are we going to take out and where are they?"

It was almost exactly at this moment that I watched the South Tower go down. It was an all encompassing sight; a waterfall of debris and deafening sound. A jet fighter (I believe an F-15) split the sky above us and despite the fact that we'd just witnessed one of the world's most massive buildings collapse within seconds, the crowd on the sidewalk erupted into fist pumping frenzy. At this point I looked to the Hudson River, imagining that if the end of the world was now upon us, I should just leap into the water and submerge myself as the flames of Armageddon raged above me.


I was nursing a beer Sunday night when a good friend, a producer for CBS News, sent me an email which read: 'turn on the news - something big is about to go down'. I yawned at this message, turned off my Blackberry and went to bed.

Of course the next morning, I'd realize all that had happened. Like everyone, I immersed myself in the ocean of news reports and commentary. As the details unfolded, they seemed more unreal. The operation seemed so flawless, as though it'd been contained in PlayStation 3 rather than the world of our shared reality where nothing is ever easy and clean.

That night I watched wrestling with my son. I have no problem with my son's adoration of the WWE - at his age I was enthralled with wrestling. It is a Jungian expression of the collective pre-adolescent fixation of superhero mythology. Between the comic-book unreality of childhood and the harsh reality of adulthood, that barren wasteland devoid of superpowers - there exists wrestling, a world populated by players who are clearly defined as good or evil in a flesh and blood semi-reality enjoying scripted outcomes and bloodless battles.

Monday night, all WWE performances were sure to incorporate bin Laden's death into their bombastic routines, ultimately resulting in fist-pumping 'USA' chants. My son watched all this and asked me who bin Laden was. Fighting against the imagery of the wrestling I found it near impossible to succinctly explain to him who bin Laden was: a son of a millionaire who'd fallen under the spell of extremism. A man who some thirty years ago fought in Afghanistan against Russia, America's then enemy now ally. A man who declared war against America, a nation where he'd eventually unleash a horrific terrorist attack using plane crashes - America the nation where his own father died in his childhood. From a plane crash.

The WWE program's fist pumping patriotism was gratuitous and boundless. It echoed in an audience filled with young men, many of whom were children on the morning of 9/11. On Sunday night we also saw spontaneous celebrations on college campuses as a result of bin Laden's death. Again, these kids have no recollection of 9/11, yet seem to most acutely revel in his death. Perhaps in his death they see a cure for the amorphous and implacable malaise that has permeated our culture in the last decade.

I think back to that screaming man in the median of the West Side Highway on that September morning. His rage articulated the start of an ellipse that would require completion. And despite the questionable tactical significance of bin Laden's death, his dramatic demise completes our national anger. A new chapter of heroic mythology is created. And it would be impossible to carry on without it.

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