A few days after September 11, 2001, my wife and I walked down to the White House. The city was stilled with grief and fear. It was not yet clear that the danger had passed. The airport was closed. On television the doomed planes kept crashing into the towers and the doomed towers kept collapsing, until the horror began to feel a little unreal. The flood of words, the immediate eruption of understanding and analysis, the unseemly triumph over shock and silence were having a similar effect. To preserve the sting of reality, we left the house for the nervous city.
Lafayette Park was almost deserted. The quiet knew nothing of peace. The empty sky was an emblem of dread. There were snipers on the roof of the White House, which suddenly had the aspect of a target. We sat on a bench as a small expression of resolve, as an act of solidarity with the normal life that seemed under threat, and with the struggle that was to come. The American insulation had come undone. It was one of those moments—our strong and lucky history has spared us many such grim epiphanies—when you recognize again how much your country, how much this country, matters.
I thought of that bleak hour in Lafayette Park this May 1, when I stood in the same spot amid the reveling crowd. The news of Osama bin Laden’s death had brought thousands of people, and hundreds of flags, to the gates of the White House. They were young, diverse, and giddy. There were soldiers, Marines I think, among the cheering civilians.
One smiling young man carried a small piece of paper that read “A Happy Muslim.” Another sign, which caused no controversy, read “Brings the Troops Home,” as nearby a big black man with a tiny trumpet played “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again.” A witty young woman held up the back of a pizza box on which she had written that Donald Trump wants to see Osama bin Laden’s death certificate. Almost everybody was Twittering their excitement. (A Twittering mob is a less terrifying mob.)
A lot of beer was drunk and spilled. The scene was boorish, of course. Triumphalism is often not a pretty thing. But still, distinctions had to be made. This crowd burned nobody in effigy, nobody’s flag, nobody’s books. It had assembled to celebrate an entirely defensible act, whose justice could be proven on more than merely nationalistic grounds.
After all, Osama bin Laden killed even more Muslims than Americans, and he represented one of the most poisonous ideas of our time: the restoration, by means of sanctified violence, of a human world without rights. There is no decent man or woman anywhere—and the democratizing Arab street has shown this most starkly—who does not wish to see this armed political theology defeated. If any death justifies rejoicing, the death of Osama bin Laden does.
While I was satisfied with the universal grounds for the joy of the crowd, I confess that I was not desperately seeking it. The explosion of patriotism in Lafayette Park seemed to me also like a moral expression. For one thing, I was surprised, and delighted in a dark way, to discover that the wound of September 11 was still so fresh, not least for people who were young when the attack occurred: The pressures of American materialism, and of the manic American way of life, upon American collective memory are immense, and not even the two wars that we are fighting abroad, both of them legacies of September 11, seem to have focused American attention for very long on the principles of our conflict with medievalist tyranny.
At the time of his death, bin Laden himself no longer posed the threat that a decade ago he did; he was mainly a symbol of his evil, a figure whose power was chiefly mythic. But symbols and myths are also real, and the revelers in Lafayette Park had not forgotten the atrocity of a decade ago; and they knew, too, that, whatever the deterrent effect of destroying bin Laden, justice had been done.
The operation in Abbottabad was an act of revenge, certainly; but no mob had ever appeared at the gates of the White House calling for such revenge. The mob came only to affirm it when it was done. “Osama bin Gotten,” as one sign said. The kids were not bloodthirsty. They were merely aware that we have enemies. There was nothing awry with their feeling that the enemy of their country was their enemy, too.
I did not go to Lafayette Square only to watch; I went also to join. I have always believed in the moral character of counterterrorism (and in the attendant calculus of means and ends, of course), and I was elated by this vindication of it, boldly but also scrupulously executed. I reacted viscerally to President Obama’s announcement, and in this case I have no apologies to make for my viscera. When the crowd outside the gates of the White House sang, more than once, more than twice, “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “God Bless America,” I sang with them, more than once, more than twice. (I took a pass on “We Will Rock You.”)
No, the killing of Osama bin Laden is not a great strategic accomplishment. In the past 10 years, the forces of reaction in the Muslim world have changed their configurations, and defeating them, which cannot be the work only of the United States, will be more difficult even than finding Osama bin Laden. There are many complicating things to say about the practical consequences of the action in Abbottabad. But we must not diminish what was achieved by three American helicopters on May 1.
This symbolism—this evidence of the United States not desisting—is also real. Strategic objectives—security for the United States, liberalization for Muslim societies—cannot be pursued when the sense of their purpose is frayed or exhausted, and insofar as the death of Osama bin Laden refreshes our memories, it refreshes our reasons. We would be small to think otherwise.
Leon Wieseltier has been the literary editor of The New Republic since 1983. Reprinted from the website of The New Republic (May 2, 2011), which covers American politics, foreign policy, arts, and culture from a variety of viewpoints. www.tnr.com