This morning I opened Gmail and found a new message from an old friend: “We just got news that Osama is dead! Way to kick ass, American soldiers! – Sent from my iPad.” During my initial groggy glance I read ‘Obama is dead’ and assumed that the following words were bitterly sarcastic blame for failing to protect the President. Then I re-read the message and assumed it was spam.
Just in case there was a kernel of truth I opened up my browser and loaded the New York Times homepage. The all-caps headline confirmed the email, but I still couldn’t believe it.
Osama bin Laden has defined my life since eight-year-old me first read about him following the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing. During my younger years he provided fodder for late night web searches, caffeinated research binges in which I sought out every clue or detail about the man, his life, his crimes. At one point in elementary school I think I even drafted a short story about the 1995 kidnapping of six western tourists in Kashmir by an al Qaeda affiliate.
After all this earlier research 9/11 was almost immaterial to my personal fascination. But that day changed the world, a world I lived in, providing new terrors, thrills, opportunities.
To say I was on edge in the months after 9/11 is a bit of an understatement. I was sure that the next jarring FOXNEWS ALERT! would report the tale of an American city vaporized by a terrorist’s suitcase nuke.
If the TV or radio went dead I assumed the same, eventually creating my own stockpiles of food and water (which I excused to my parents as ‘camping supplies’) in order to be ready for the next attack.
I wanted to be ready, but my reaction wasn’t entirely reactive. During class I clutched mental gears and shifted them to more patriotic concerns brainstorming national vulnerabilities. I later compiled these notes into a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge, detailing how terrorists might unleash catastrophe by, say, mixing anthrax into road salt in winter so each passing car would kick up deadly spores. I never heard if they took steps to prevent such a scenario.
I mentally rehearsed battle drills in school, at the store, on planes- weak points, vulnerabilities, what I would do if terrorists attacked. I guess I still do this now, albeit with less ‘try to trip the hijacker’ fatalism and more ‘LET’S ROLL!’ moxie.
With that state of mind, with that sort of a grip on my life, Osama bin Laden was a man turned to myth, ostensibly existent yet unbelievable all the same- like Mr. Rogers, or Satan. You felt that he was real but didn’t know, could never really know.
I guess a controlled pair from an M4 is all it takes for reality to catch up.
The death of bin Laden is presumably a game changer, and the effects are bound to be widespread, but that doesn’t mean much now. This morning I received a Facebook message from a buddy in Afghanistan: “so we can go home now, right?”
He’s fighting the Taliban, a Sunni insurgency together with remnants of al Qaeda and assorted political rejectionists. I’m fighting a Shia insurgency together with militants inspired by al Qaeda and assorted political rejectionists.
Bin Laden’s dead, awesome! Hi-five! Cigars tonight! Here, have some celebratory ‘Bin Laden is Dead’ Peeps! (Leftover candy from Valentines and Easter continues to trickle in.)
Okay, back to work.
This is how it goes down over here. I Skyped with friends in NYC and DC who were live-Tweeting from Ground Zero and the White House, taking shots of vodka from revelers dressed as Santa Claus, hooting and hollering and flag-waving into the early morning.
I’m kind of bummed to miss out on that massive jubilation, a moment I have been preparing for since Khobar. On a shelf in my Manhattan Mini Storage unit, gathering dust, sits a bottle of Veuve Clicquot with “BIN LADEN DEAD” Sharpied diagonally across the label. I can’t wait to get back to that bubbly, pop it open and mark the moment with more than pre-packaged ice cream.
When we began the hunt, there was no iPod, let alone iPad; Skype, Twitter, Gmail, and Facebook were years away and the only U.S. forces in (over) Iraq were enforcing no-fly zones; I had glasses, braces, and some god-awful contraption called a Herbst appliance jutting off my molars.
Much has changed since then, including the feeling of relief that swelled this morning. It feels good to win for once, to have an unqualified victory in a world of ambiguous outcomes and hesitant moves.
I don’t really care if that moment’s born of vengeance or blood lust- we won something today, and amidst constant loss I’ll take my wins wherever I can get ’em.