Both New Yorkers and Cornellians, Jacob and I were struck by the campus euphoria that followed Osama Bin Laden’s death after a decade of build-up following 9/11. We sat down this weekend at The Sun’s office and considered how to address the gargantuan event of a year ago today and the parade-like reaction in a sincere way. Few Sun writers have written on Bin Laden in the past year, and it’s a topic that is often excessively intellectualized or emotionalized. Our opinions during our conversation change at points and reveal some confusion about how we feel — a far cry from our normal columns, but perhaps reflective of a moral grey area that confronts not just us but also Sun readers. In this ever-hectic last week of classes, we hope each of you can take a moment for a meaningful thought or conversation about May 2, 2011.
Jacob Kose: Frankly, I was disturbed by how happy and celebratory we were here at Cornell following Bin Laden’s death. I don’t question the fact that every American faced with the overly simplistic question, “Did you or did you not like Osama bin Laden,” would look at the inquirer with deranged crazy eyes. I also don’t question that Bin Laden’s death holds special significance for those of us who grew up in the post 9/11 world. I question how many of us celebrated; paraded in the libraries, ran around the streets in American flags while screaming “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” at the top of their lungs.
It freaked me out — a parade over someone’s death? Clearly his death was going to be met with relief, but I was totally unprepared for the euphoric craze that overtook this campus. We snuffed out a life without the least thought of due process. Bin Laden was a mass murderer, but so were SS officers in World War II, and at least they were afforded due process during the Nuremberg Trials. That there were tons of them and only one Osama is no excuse whatsoever.
Maggie Henry: Clearly people hated Bin Laden, or at the very least disliked him as a public figure. Our reaction, however, might speak to something more than each individual’s feelings about him. Did we react euphorically because the events of 9/11 impacted our national psyche so intensely, or because the war that ensued has created the symbolic “bogeyman” of our generation?
Our generation has known two Bin Ladens. One is Osama Bin Laden, a terrible person who committed terrible deeds. The other is the Bin Laden of May 2, 2011, who represented an ideological battlefield 10 years wide. This second Bin Laden was the spark to the fire that ultimately engulfed not only victims of 9/11, but also nearly 3,000 coalition soldiers in Afghanistan. The Bin Laden who died a year ago was a symbol created by a war and a fire that spread from New York City to Afghanistan, not just the individual who did terrible things.
J.K.: Absolutely. I wonder whether, on this date last year, our generation celebrated on behalf of ourselves, our country and everything Bin Laden’s death symbolized in our post-9/11 national catharsis, or the actual victims of 9/11. (To be clear, I don’t necessarily think we celebrated for anyone outside this country — whether or not Americans even believe an international community truly exists with respect to terrorism is its own issue. Terrorism is certainly global, but when your country is attacked, it becomes personal; ask anyone in the Middle East and they’d agree.) But I find the question poignant because I’d argue that we’re still confused about whether we were celebrating for our victims or ourselves, and I think our inability to break down why we celebrated still impacts why we’re just not talking about the man’s death a year after it happened.
M.H.: I think we can say with confidence that each and every American was affected by 9/11 — whether it was personal or national. Something that’s really special here is our method of governance and our democratic values that allow us, as political citizens, to feel losses along with others who are affected more personally. At Cornell, we were flying the American flag both in remembrance and out of hope. For America, Bin Laden’s death was the long-promised fresh start.
Clearly, a terrorist can always be replaced and one terrorist’s obliteration doesn’t mean much tangibly. Beyond that, cheering a death puts me off — it certainly felt morbid and bizarre. But Bin Laden had ceased to be the individual and had become the symbol of the 10 years following 9/11, as I said above. While our campus’ reaction might have been tasteless or insensitive to the violent nature of his death, it was certainly appropriate. We suffered an incredible loss 10 years ago. It was 3,000 precious lives, our sense of safety and our national identity. As an American community, we had the right to be happy, even if a more judicial process would have brought a more familiar sense of justice. More than trying to justify our reaction, maybe we should be asking if we have to justify our reaction, given the circumstances.
J.K.: We absolutely had the right to be happy given the magnitude of our loss. Psychologically, we needed to feel as redeemed as possible the instant we heard our military killed the man primarily responsible for those 3,000 deaths. Still, we absolutely have to ask whether or not our actions were justifiable — how can you not re-examine the license we and our soldiers took in giving ourselves the agency to execute a man at any cost? Many people take issue with legally adjudicated execution sentences, and we’re talking about an initiative whose sole purpose was to find and kill a man with no questions asked.
Before, I brought up the example of the Nuremberg trials of SS officers in World War II, the most applicable in modern world history. I understand why those trials don’t come to mind for today’s American government and people — 60 years ago is 60 years ago. But now that our government has had a year of distance, should it not address the American people saying “There was a precedent for international due process of this magnitude and we fucked up?”
M.H.: Bin Laden acted with respect to ideological borders, not political borders. Nuremberg proved to the world that individuals couldn’t always hide behind governments to legitimize their choices — sometimes, when the government’s really, really bad, we have to accept that individuals colluded with the government’s atrocious choices. Bin Laden, however, wasn’t an agent of the government.
The precedent that Nuremberg set isn’t relevant here; this is a whole other beast. Terrorism can be manifested non-politically, non-governmentally. What is due process when someone has absolved themselves of a relationship with any country that could provide it? How do we treat someone who avoids being treated at all, regardless of how horribly they treat other people? Bin Laden hid in Pakistan, was a Saudi citizen and committed crimes in Afghanistan and the United States. Even our overjoyed reaction to his death was a reflection of our ideological battle, not our national one. He wasn’t a legal animal, which he demonstrated pretty clearly with his blatant display of criminality.
Frankly, it’s really difficult to imagine a different outcome. He couldn’t have been tried in the United States, he couldn’t have been tried in Pakistan, he couldn’t necessarily have even been tried in Afghanistan. In many ways, the legality issue of his death, or even execution if we can call it that, isn’t relevant because there was only one option.
J.K.: What we’re both getting at isn’t that there’s been no reckoning, it’s that our government hasn’t even addressed Bin Laden’s death except to tout it. Even if there was only one option, it still should be justified. Lack of options doesn’t explain or justify action, no matter how pressed we were to take it. In this case, I don’t think our government necessarily has to answer to the international community, but it certainly has to answer to the American people. Or not necessarily answer, since we elect our government to check and balance our debauchery, but shouldn’t the government have to at least address, if not justify, how we went about finding and killing Osama Bin Laden? We’re conditioned to expect due process — habeas corpus is our highest ideal. It didn’t come into play a year ago, and if not now, when? At the end of this seemingly endless war on terror?
M.H.: I wouldn’t necessarily blame just the government. They are unlikely to be forthcoming unless we press them to be so.
J.K.: So why hasn’t anyone asked? This gets back to the crux of the issue that we addressed earlier — we were thrilled, euphoric to see Bin Laden dead. We don’t want to ask. So, should the government just never address it, like a special “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (but just for Osama)? We might be at fault as much as the government, but if that’s so, maybe we should be hunting for answers.
M.H.: I think it’s the confluence of our ideological expectation of due process and the reality of what it took to get rid of Bin Laden that prevents us from asking questions. For the last year, we’ve just swallowed what happened because it achieved the end we all sought after 9/11’s incredible emotional toll upon this country. The end couldn’t really justify the means, and it’s uncomfortable to confront the disparity between the means that should have been used and the means that were used.
Even we, thinking about a year ago, can’t get our opinions straight. It’s because the gap between what we’re taught to value and what happens is too wide.
J.K.: Sure, nothing could have prepared us for this situation. And obviously the last time America was attacked on this scale was during an international war, in Hawaii not New York City, and a surprise military strike by the Imperial Japanese on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor doesn’t exactly compare to terrorists hijacking airplanes and flying them into the biggest buildings in New York City. Maybe we should just be grateful that our government didn’t drop an atomic bomb this time. After all, we may be more against the war in Afghanistan now than at any point since 2001, but, as we’ve both realized throughout this discussion, our support for having killed Osama hasn’t waned one bit in the last year.
Maggie Henry is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Get Over Yourself appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.
Jacob Kose is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at email@example.com. Scrambled Eggs appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.