Experiencing History Through Twitter and Other Thoughts about the Death of bin Ladin

President and national security team receive updates about the bin Ladin mission.
Image source: White House on Flickr.

I’ve been very surprised about America’s reaction to the death of Osama bin Ladin.

If you had asked me two days ago what I thought people would do if Osama bin Ladin were killed tomorrow, I would have guessed that most Americans wouldn’t care much – that after 10 years of wars, which at this point in the US, mostly only military families and some politicians pay close attention to, and with any sense of unity we felt after 9/11 a faint memory in the bitter and nasty political climate of today, I would have guessed that the average Jane on the street would feel a momentary sense of “finally got him” and that would be the end of it.

I would have been very wrong.  I was really shocked by how emotional people felt. I was shocked by the gleeful and joyous feelings people felt. I didn’t feel joy, I felt.. ok, some faint vindication, triumph over evil and all of that, but mostly I felt terribly sad remembering the horror of what happened on that beautiful blue sky day in September and sadder still at all the death and war and destruction that followed it. Osama bin Ladin was certainly a mass murderer and a zealot and a terrorist – and his death means that he can no longer plan or proselytize or execute any more death and destruction, and for that I _am_ glad. But not joyous.

I also wondered today how much my perception was colored by the experience of learning about it and participating in the immediate reaction on Twitter – which was wildly fast paced and .. words truly fail me. At times it was hysterically funny, the first time you read the “long form death certificate” joke it was funny, by the 50th time not so much. At times it was uncomfortable, or at least I felt uncomfortable with the glee that so many seemed to feel.   And at times it was inspiring, to be part of such an amazingly multi-threaded conversation, with comments whizzing by in English, Spanish, Japanese, Arabic, and more, you had a sense that to experience historical events today is somehow different – with Twitter and Facebook and a cell phone in nearly every pocket, it’s not even that news travels fast, but that our reactions to it travel just as quickly.

Image hat tip @mixed_realities, image source @miguelrios (submitted by pleated-jeans).

From speculation to confirmation to reaction in minutes, and your immediate reaction tempered by the hundreds and thousands of others’ reactions erupting simultaneously. The ones cracking jokes, the ones shouting “GO USA!”, I literally saw calls for bin Ladin’s head on a spike on the #tcot hashtag (not surprising), calls to be reflective, reminders that bin Ladin was just one man and al Qaida is more than one man, remembrances of 9/11.. it was crazy! And some of it very discomfiting.

I was heartened to see others in my Twitter stream expressing discomfort with the celebratory tone, even as I felt conflicted about my own feelings. I wrote:

@annehaines I think part of the “celebration” aspect is that these wars have been SO long SO costly SO complex. A simple victory resonates.

@annehaines And US is divided by so many things, when we can feel unified about something, I think it amplifies the emotion.

After reading more about what happened and reading and listening to all of the voices on the net and in my networks, I think that maybe it’s too simplistic to say that Americans were celebrating the death of Osama bin Ladin. Certainly some were, and it really WAS and IS that simple for many, but in some part I think it was an outpouring of pent up emotions that maybe we didn’t even realize we were feeling.

By my view, the world really did change on September 11th, and it has been a long, brutal, depressing decade since. Whatever innocent naivete I still held at the wise old age of 25 began to crumble as those towers fell and the 10 years since have held many bitter lessons still. Wars that seem unending and against people and ideologies that are complex and don’t lend themselves to simple narratives about “defeating our enemies”. A decade of absolute fiscal corruption and robbery that would have made the robber barons blush. A political system that seems barely functional on the good days and completely ill equipped to address any of the real issues facing our nation. Catastrophes like Katrina from mother nature, and catastrophes of our own making, leaving people without homes and jobs and even those of us who still have both ever fearful that they could disappear tomorrow.

There hasn’t been a whole heck of a lot to celebrate since September 11th and I think the reaction to bin Ladin’s death was less about dancing on one man’s grave and more about the resonance of a simple, understandable victory against at least some small part of all of the tremendous uncertainty and evil in this world.

And I guess that’s ok, or at least it makes the emotion I saw and sometimes felt a little more understandable.

I think the important thing will be to see if in death, the symbol that bin Ladin became in our minds and in the media can become a symbolic closing of that sad chapter in our history. The Arab Spring certainly gives hope that radicalism will give way to revolution of the kind America’s forefathers would understand, and I hope against all hope that the end of these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will come soon.

As for the rest of it, this explosion of pent up emotion and the rush to cheer about SOMETHING after so long a drought of things to cheer about.. well, it’s partly our own doing we’re in this glum mess. Though the world is complex and we have an important role to play in it, I think we really need to spend some time cleaning up our own house and maybe then we’d have truly joyous reasons to celebrate.

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