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On Sunday night, Harvard students followed young Americans across the country by celebrating in public the killing of Osama bin Laden. Here, some of our columnists offer their reaction to bin Laden’ death, our response, and what it all means, in our new online "Columnist Conversations" feature. A reduced version of these views was printed on The Crimson's opinion page on May 4, 2011.
Osama bin Laden's death has been called a mainly symbolic victory but its success should not be trivialized. While the U.S. personnel abroad certainly know one death will not suddenly end their operations or immediately lessen the dangers they face, they will still be rightfully proud. As for our citizens back home, they deserve to respond to bin Laden’s death however they choose. I’ve been disappointed by those who have been quick to judge their fellow citizens and criticize their celebrations. People find closure in this death on a very individual level. For some, such closure might mean quiet contemplation or minimal impact; for others, there is catharsis in jubilation. Perhaps as a New Yorker I am more sensitive to the scars that will heal better for some now—take Hank Grazioso’s tragic story as just one example. I choose to put faith in my fellow students and assume that the celebrations in Harvard Yard Sunday night and around campus—including in my own common room—were for the many victims of whom we all know, and for the relief we can feel as a nation. The debate over whether students were celebrating “death” misses the point. Just as the nation claimed to stand with the victims and New York after 9/11, so should it stand together as we react in our own ways.
ALEXANDER R. KONRAD '11
May 3, 2011
Alexander R. Konrad '11 is a Crimson columnist in Quincy House.
Move on from Terror
Dylan R. Matthews ‘12: I'm glad Osama bin Laden is dead. It's an important symbolic and, if we're lucky, operational blow to al-Qaeda, and offers closure to people who were due it years ago. That said, this is as good a time as any to recognize that terrorism, while horrible, is one threat to the United States among many. As the political scientist John E. Mueller has been noting for years, the number of Americans killed by terrorism is in most years comparable to the number killed by lightning, and pales in comparison to the number killed by auto accidents. It is rather hard to come up with a good reason why we spend orders of magnitude trying to prevent deaths from terrorism than on tackling these more mundane threats. Sunday's raid brought us as clear a denouement as we're going to get in the war on terrorism. It's time to move on.
DYLAN R. MATTHEWS '12
May 3, 2011
Dylan R. Matthews '12 is a Crimson columnist studying abroad at the University of Cambridge.
Osama is our Voldemort. He’s our Emperor Palpatine. He is the Face of Evil, a mythical holdover from when we were too young to realize that evil has no face. After all, our generation is generally not allowed to call anyone evil. No one is evil, they told us. They just had weird childhoods. Except Osama. He was pure evil, an acceptable target, the video game villain at the end of the level. And this was a relief. In our guts, we are accustomed to simple villains.
So for people my age, the idea that you would greet the news of Osama’s demise with anything short of unmitigated exhilaration is ludicrous. Call up the Ewoks and get the bonfires started. Gather the, er, wizards, for the wizard banquet. We got him. The Big Honcho. The top cheese. The chief muck-a-muck. Besides, we’ll take any excuse to party.
But once we got started, the revel felt unseemly. It was simply the celebration of the death of one man, not a complete victory over any ultimate evil. Even as we cheered, we knew better. For us at 12 and 14, Osama was a reassuring monster. He was the face behind the random terror of the universe, the dragon we could slay and beat, the Boss of the Level. Now we understand that we have scorched the snake, not killed it. We know the difference between a hydra and a dragon.
But there is still that 12-year-old inside us, exultantly staring down the reactor shaft where we just tossed the Emperor.
Of course we’d want to party.
ALEXANDRA A. PETRI ’10
May 3, 2011
Alexandra A. Petri ’10, a former Crimson columnist, writes opinion pieces for The Washington Post.
Reflecting on Obama’s Speech
President Obama deserves our unalloyed praise for hastening Osama bin Laden’s demise. Yes, President George W. Bush established the mission, but Obama made it a priority. Yes, the CIA secured the intelligence, but Obama acted on it. By doing so, he exhibited the quality that his supporters have long attributed to him without much evidence: judgment.
The operation was extremely risky, and the president was intimately involved. Although the CIA was unsure whether bin Laden was inside the compound—some analysts put odds at 60 percent—Obama carried on. His national-security advisers were divided over whether to attack by air or by land, but the president knew we needed the body. He ordered a ground assault. And despite the risk that Pakistan would chafe at a military strike deep inside its borders—and at our lack of a warning—the president knew too much was at stake. He made the right calls, and they paid off.
The president’s speech to the nation, on the other hand, deserves praise of a tepid kind—not because he did anything egregiously wrong, but because he didn’t do anything especially right. Appropriately, his voice was grave, his countenance sober. He reflected the gravity of the moment. (He also was probably tired.)
He spoke movingly about 9/11, placing the images of “hijacked planes cutting through a cloudless September sky” and “black smoke billowing up from the Pentagon” squarely in our minds. He spoke concretely (but, thankfully, not too concretely) about the operation: his initial order to CIA director Leon Panetta, his subsequent meetings with advisers, his final decision to make the attack. He reminded the nation, and the world, that ours is not a war against Islam, that we are grateful for our military, and that we still feel the pain of 9/11.
Nonetheless, nothing he said was particularly memorable. (I admit I made use of a transcript.) And the president has an unfortunate tendency of ending his speeches with a little-engine-that-could shtick. “Tonight, we are once again reminded that America can do whatever we set our mind to,” he said. “That is the story of our history, whether it’s the pursuit of prosperity for our people, or the struggle for equality for all our citizens.”
It was as if he were giving us a pep talk. And so the president pulled a switcheroo on Sunday: He showed himself to be less than eloquent and more than wise.
BRIAN J. BOLDUC ’10
New York, N.Y.
May 3, 2011
Brian J. Bolduc ’10, a former Crimson columnist, is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.
Far From Over
Don’t get me wrong. I rejoiced when I read that bin Laden was killed. I felt a tremendous surge of gratitude to our soldiers and pride in our country. But somehow I didn’t feel the urge to go out into Yard and party.
Maybe that’s because some part of me believes that we shouldn’t be dancing over the deaths of our enemies. But it could also be because the networks that bin Laden created are still firmly in place. Bin Laden already has a very likely successor in the form of Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Al Qaida splinter groups like the AQAP are still recruiting actively. Bin Laden was the charismatic figurehead of this organization, but I’m much more fearful of the legacy that he left behind. Wave our nation’s flag and blast that song from “Team America” if you must, but the moment our jingoism wears off this country must realize that our fight is far from over.
AVISHAI D. DON ’12
May 3, 2011
Avishai D. Don ’12 is a Crimson columnist in Adams House.
The End of an Era
What can be said that hasn’t already been said—other than that we finally seem to have arrived at the letter bookend of the Bush era? Much as the 90s didn’t end until September 11th, only now are the Aughts—an era haunted by the psychic specter of the ever-at-large bin Laden—truly at an end. Between the election of Barack Obama, the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and now, the death of public enemy number one, we have finally turned the page on an age marred by fear, distrust, and paranoia. But only by reversing the cancerous growth of the surveillance state and somehow extracting ourselves from the Afghan tar baby can we ever be completely free from bin Laden’s shadow.
DHRUV K. SINGHAL ’12
May 3, 2011
Dhruv K. Singhal ’12 is a Crimson columnist in Currier House.
What struck me about the post-speech celebration in the Yard on Sunday is that for a “death celebration” it was overwhelmingly positive. The chants of “U.S.A! U.S.A!” were joyful. No one was cheering “Kill the terrorists,” or anything near as vitriolic as is heard at an average Harvard-Yale game. For this reason, it would be a mistake to think all the students who took to the Yard were celebrating a death. Bin Laden himself was perhaps beside the point. We’re all savvy enough to realize that this does not mean a return to Pax Americana. On Monday, 13 civilians were killed in war-related violence in Iraq. Last Wednesday, eight American troops were killed in a shooting rampage on an Afghan air base. America still has significant military commitments around the globe that show no sign of diminishing. In the end, the death of an old war enemy in a compound without Internet or phone lines is simply not practically significant. Indeed, bin Laden’s death is a Rorschach test for what each person feels about the “war on terror,” America’s international status, and the individual’s place in the world. As such, the reaction over it reflects more of our own insecurities and joys than anything about the man.
ANITA J. JOSEPH ’12
May 3, 2011
Anita J. Joseph ’12 is a Crimson editorial chair in Leverett House.
Remember Harvard’s Ties
Harvard students gathered in the Yard on Sunday to sound a barbaric yawp of patriotism. It seems fair to say that for those students, Osama bin Laden could not have been farther removed from America’s oldest university, the ideals for which it stands, and the patriotic zeal it apparently inspires. But before we all jump on the rickety bandwagon that equates Harvard with American patriotic fervor, it’s worth remembering the University’s ties to the bin Laden family—not because these ties implicate Harvard in any way but rather because they show the nuances behind any issue of this magnitude. In the early 1990s, for instance, bin Laden’s own brother—Sheik Bakr Mohammed bin Laden—made two substantive gifts to Harvard to fund fellowships, including one to the Law School to fund the research of historical Islamic legal systems “particularly insofar as they uphold or apply the Islamic shari’a.” Some years later, after Osama bin Laden had been suspected of embassy bombings in Africa, a University spokesman even made the distinction that here in Cambridge, at least, “the Saudi bin Laden money is being put to good use.” In that sense, the Sunday night celebration seemed a bit, well, misguided.
JAMES K. MCAULEY ’12
May 3, 2011
James K. McAuley ’12 is a Crimson editorial chair in Currier House.
Some on campus have moralistically complained that it was wrong of students to celebrate the death of bin Laden by cheering, waving American flags, and singing patriotic songs in Harvard Yard the night the news arrived. I realize Harvard students can often be disconnected from reality and that some campus leftists see no distinction between patriotism and jingoism, but good grief. But part of valuing freedom and human life is defending them from those who would replace them with tyranny and death. Sometimes this defense requires force, and sometimes even lethal force.
WYATT N. TROIA ’12
May 3, 2011
Wyatt N. Troia ’14 is a Crimson editorial writer.
On Celebrating Closure
Just after midnight Monday morning, immediately after President Barack Obama told the world that U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden in a firefight, Harvard Yard erupted in a spontaneous celebration of proud patriotism and national unity. It was not just a celebration of retributive justice being served. It was one of good prevailing over evil. As is often the case on our contentious campus, the opinions of students quickly catalyzed around the event. Some argue the events of Monday morning were “hypocritical” and “decidedly anti-American” – this is simply not the case. Celebrating the closure bin Laden’s death brings to the free world is morally and unambiguously justified.
In an ideal world, nobody’s death would be celebrated because everyone would be good. Unfortunately, our world is far from ideal. Sunday’s victory was one of justice being served. At least bin Laden could mount a defense; the thousands he massacred could not. They were not soldiers or self-proclaimed terrorist leaders, and they were not killed in a 40-minute-long firefight. No, those who died on 9/11 had no idea they were being hunted, no idea their lives would be taken by a terrorist mastermind half a world away.
So to those who ask how we are different from the terrorists when we celebrate the death of bin Laden – that is the answer. Bin Laden wished to instill fear in the hearts of all the free people of the world. He knew he was perpetrating an act that invited retribution and delighted in being on the run. Bin Laden had nearly ten more years of freedom and life than his victims. In the end, he suffered the consequences of his own choice not to surrender.
RAJIV TARIGOPULA ’12
May 3, 2011
Rajiv Tarigopula ’14 is a Crimson editorial writer.
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