Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Lest we forget...

With all the talk about Osama bin Laden and the advice on how we should or should not react to his death, I think it's a good time to reflect upon his legacy.

These photographs come courtesy of Daniel Ryan who in 2001 was a firefighter with the Niles, Il. Fire Department. Along with several of his colleagues from all over the country, Dan traveled to Ground Zero in New York City at his own expense, to assist with the unimaginable task of recovering the remains of the people who died there on September 11, 2001.

On September 11, 2001, 2,742 innocent lives were taken at the World Trade Center, 184 were lost at the Pentagon, and 41 were lost on the plane that was taken over by the passengers and crashed in Shanksville, PA.

This of course does not include all the innocent lives that were lost in al-Qaeda attacks at the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the attack on the USS Cole, the bombings of the transportation systems of Moscow, Madrid and London, attacks against Christians in the Philippines and against Muslims in Iran and Indonesia. The list goes on and on.

With all the attention in the last few weeks devoted to bin Laden, I think it's high time we forget about him and remember the people he murdered.

Thank you Dan for your photographs and for your service.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Was it vengeance or justice?

This has been one of the many questions going through my head since my wife awoke me last Sunday from a sound sleep to tell me that we got Osama bin Laden. While his death may have been the biggest rallying point for Americans since that terrible day almost ten years ago, many questions surrounding his killing left me feeling a little ambivalent.

Take the spontaneous rally in front of the White House that was shown ad nauseum Sunday night during the coverage of the event. There, hundreds of fist pumping, chest thumping yahoos, mostly in their teens or barely older, were chanting "U.S.A. U.S.A." and singing "na na na na hey hey hey goodbye".

"What do they know? They were only kids during 9/11" was my sentiment shared with others who were appalled by the celebration. After I thought about it though, on September 11, 2001, most of the kids at the White House were the age that my son is today. If my boy is any example, ten is one of the most impressionable ages in life, old enough to know what's going on but still too young to fully digest it. I can't imagine what the effect of witnessing the events of that day unfolding right before his eyes would have been had on him if my son had been ten at the time. It certainly would have been a terrifying, life altering experience, as it no doubt was for those kids who were in front of the White House the other day.

Osama bin Laden was THE personification of evil for a generation, a real life, flesh and blood bogeyman, his face looming large in the nightmares of the children who were forced to come of age in the days, weeks and months following the attacks. Of course, teenagers need little excuse for getting a little crazy, but I suspect that his demise was a huge release for many of them.

After the wave of euphoria and praise for President Obama, I'm starting to hear rumblings about the timing of the attack in Abbottabad. Could the fact that it happened at a time when the president's popularity was at an all time low not be a coincidence? Cynical thoughts to be sure but it wouldn't be the first time that we have initiated military strikes abroad during tough times for presidents. My guess is that if President Obama wanted to take full political advantage of capturing bin Laden, he would have waited for a more advantageous time, say during the Republican National Convention.

However I did think the timing was brilliant, if not intentional, as it made for delicious poetic justice, after all the "birthing" nonsense of the past few weeks. The announcement of the news interrupted Donald Trump's silly reality TV show as if the president was saying; "excuse me for interrupting while you're cavorting with the likes of Gary Busey and Meatloaf, but I just wanted to tell the world that we got Osama bin Laden. Back to you Donald."

Speaking of poetic justice, the image of the world's most famous fugitive hiding not in the caves of remote Pakistan as was commonly thought, but inside a mansion in a wealthy suburb of that nation's capital, lent credence to George W. Bush's assertion that the people behind the 9/11 attacks were cowards. So does the report of bin Laden firing at Navy SEALS from behind the protection of one of his many wives. Unfortunately, the facts don't back this up. It turns out that while one of the men in the compound did use a woman as a shield as he fired at SEALS, bin Laden did not hide behind anyone, he was in fact, unarmed. If a mansion in Islamabad's equivalent of Winnetka evokes images of living "la dolce vita", bin Laden's life there had to be in reality, a self-imposed imprisonment.

Not that anybody should particularly care, I am of the opinion that bin Laden is exactly where he belongs, at the bottom of the sea. Yet this guy whom we hated for so long is himself not a black and white character at all. He was OK with us while he supported the Mujahideen in their efforts to defeat the Soviets while they were occupying Afghanistan. You may recall that we didn't mind the Taliban so much back then either. We give credit to Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II for their roles in bringing down the Soviet Union, but I think the role of Osama bin Laden is overlooked. The Soviet defeat in Afghanistan, a struggle to which bin Laden contributed significantly, may very well have been the beginning of the end of the "evil empire".

Yet bin Laden's motivation for jihad against the Soviets was exactly the same as his motivation for jihad against us, the removal of foreign influence from the Islamic world. He was not a mad man, far from it. In interviews, bin Laden very rationally articulated his plans to undermine the U.S. He had a great understanding of capitalism and of how we tick. In the end, he understood us far more than we understood him. Calling him brilliant may be a bit of an understatement. Bin Laden may be gone, but his cause is far from dead. Claiming victory in the war on the terror network that he led is premature to say the least.

Well was he evil? Now there's a question that only God can answer. He certainly did evil things in the name of God. In doing so he not only undermined and profaned Islam, but all religion. I don't think he was motivated by love for Allah, but hate for man. Just as some Jews, Christians, Hindus and members of all faiths did before him, bin Laden was able to convey that hatred to those who followed him by using loopholes in Scripture to justify his evil work.

Which brings me to the question at the title of this post. I've heard many comments chastising people for celebrating bin Laden's death. They say that not only does the public display of joy following this human being's murder not only provoke those who may do us harm, but it is simply wrong.

In other words, justice may well have been served, but vengeance is only the domain of the Lord.

On September 11, 2001, I wasn't in Shanksville, PA, Washington D.C. or New York City, but safe in Chicago. I wasn't evacuated from work and forced to walk home across the East River or the Potomac in full view of the devastation as my friends who live in Brooklyn and Arlington were. I didn't witness people jumping 1000 feet to their death rather than perish in suffocating smoke, as a friend in Soho did. I didn't need to offer my condolences for the losses of several firefighters at my local firehouse, or travel to Ground Zero in the aftermath to search for the remains of victims as some local firemen I know.

Most importantly, I didn't lose a friend, parent, spouse or child that day. And I never had to confront the smug grin of the murderer of my loved one, taped inside his hiding place in Pakistan.

Since my city wasn't attacked that day, I can't be the judge of people directly impacted by the attacks. As crass and over the top as they were, the words of Monday's provocative headlines in the New York tabloids speak for many of us. As far as I'm concerned, everyone from New York, Washington or Shanksville, every person who lost a loved one in an al-Qaeda attack, has reason to say; "Hooray, the bastard's dead, may he rot in hell."

Of all the comments I've heard this week, the most memorable, poignant and true words came from a young man who was a relative of one of the 9/11 victims. Without any patriotic bluster he simply said this:

Osama bin Laden was the symbol of so much suffering. And now he's gone.

Is that alone reason to celebrate?
I believe that it is.