On May 1, nearly 80 members of the U.S. Navy’s SEAL Team 6 stole into Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan, aimed their guns, and rendered the man who designed the 9/11 attacks obsolete.
As Obama relayed the news to the nation in an impromptu television announcement, his face was neutral: If anything, tired. A few times, the president jumbled his words. He did not smile, he did not express relief. He reiterated that that the fight against terror continues.
America responded differently—with jubilation. Streets crowded with people in spontaneous patriotic rallies. Drinks were poured. Republicans said nice things about Obama.
At Harvard, students congregated, as they did when Obama was elected over two years prior, in the Yard.
William T. Whitham ’14, a freshman at the time, misconstrued the shouts he heard through his window: “I actually thought it was Primal Scream even though it was still a week early,” he said.
“We probably had maybe two or three hundred people there. People were singing patriotic songs, singing Harvard songs, waving flags, there was a constitution reading, etc.,” said Rajiv Tarigopula ’14, whose post on Facebook first suggested that Harvard students gather in the Yard.
But, Tarigopula said after a pause: “The next day of course a lot of people voiced disapproval.”
Now that the initial glee has been expended and months have passed, students look back at the initial response quizzically and with slight discomfort: why was the response to murder, joy? The answers given—catharsis, relief, an assertion of strength after a long stretch of apparent impotency— reveal something else: Undergirding it all, was fear.
THE FIGURE OF 9/11
No name is associated with Pearl Harbor, the only foreign attack on American soil other than 9/11. 9/11, however, was given a face. “I think bin Laden represented, especially for our generation, the enemy,” said Tarigopula. “He was the figure of 9/11.”
Bin Laden has claimed responsibility for planning and orchestrating the attack on 9/11—redirecting the plane flights and any other steps that made him the ready executioner of thousands.
But for a decade, the United States’ armed forces were unable to locate him, and his continued evasion was seen as a national failure. This was the man behind it all, and we could not find him.
In his speech on May 1, the night bin Laden was killed, Obama invoked the images of 9/11 “hijacked planes cutting through a cloudless September sky; the Twin Towers collapsing to the ground; black smoke billowing up from the Pentagon.” These images, Obama said, had been “seared into our national memory.” Bin Laden’s face, too, had come to be one of those images.
His capture, then, to some, was vindication, imbued with symbolism. Foucault tells us that the effect of power (that is, the perception that power exists) is more important than the reality of that power. If this is the case, then regardless of whether or not the U.S. remains as the world’s strongest military power, the perception that it is powerless in the face of random and senseless attacks by terrorist organizations is debilitating and in many ways undermines our military’s might.
Thus, most of those who celebrated bin Laden’s death celebrated the symbolic assassination of the leader of Al Quaeda, not the actual loss of a human life. In their view, bin Laden’s death was a largely symbolic event, representative of national triumph.
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