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“There is America, full of fear from its north to its south, from its west to its east. Thank God for that.” This was Osama bin Laden, speaking to Al Jazeera immediately upon hearing that the 9-11 attacks on the United States, plans he had engineered, had succeeded beyond his expectations, killing thousands.
Nearly ten years later, just last week, George W. Bush issued this statement in response to the news of bin Laden’s assassination in Pakistan:
“This momentous achievement marks a victory for America, for people who seek peace around the world.”
It all made me a bit queasy, listening to news coverage of the killing of bin Laden. Old wounds were re-opened, old fears reignited as we visited, once again, footage of the chaos surrounding the tumbling Twin Towers in New York City, and fuzzy documentaries that looked like bin Laden’s home movies. This evil creature among us, this man who had declared fatwa on innocents, was dead, and young American men were swinging from the treetops, shouting their glee for all to hear.
It made me unspeakably sad. My son, after all, had volunteered at age 17 to serve in the Armed Forces and make the world a safer place, had served in Iraq, and at 22 had come home and ended his own life with a gun. No celebrating for him, and no answers for his family, ever, about what in his war experience affected him so deeply that life became unbearable.
As I watched the news coverage of bin Laden’s assassination, I wondered: Do we, as a nation, really seek peace around the world? Is that really what these last ten years of war and killing and trillions of dollars spent have been about?
I couldn’t stop watching television and I couldn’t stop weeping. This was a cause for relief, surely, but not celebration. The winds of war, instead of settling down to a gentle breeze as the mission was finally accomplished, instead were whipped into new fury.
Glued to the couch, I wept for all of those lost — in the World Trade Centers, in airplanes, at the Pentagon, in Iraq and Afghanistan — and for those forever maimed by their experiences in the longest and most expensive war ever waged by Americans. I fear for all of us now, for the psychological impact on a society of turning killing into an abstraction, a swaggering theatrical gesture, a sign of might.
What is the cost to a nation of the casual slinging about of the language of murder and assault? Over the last decade, we have absorbed and embraced terms like “shock and awe” and “decapitation mission.” We have literally turned them into games. We have deemed it acceptable for our leaders to use the language of gangsters, vowing to “take him out” when referring to bin Laden.
How can we possibly celebrate death, anyone’s death, after all the killing that has taken place over the last decade? We can roughly calculate the numbers of lives lost—6,000 or so American soldiers, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghanis by some estimates—but how do we calculate the cost to the spiritual and psychological health of individuals and our nation as a whole when we proudly take on the role of killer in the world? Are we really a nation that seeks peace around the world?
Last Sunday, on Mothers Day, the hole in my heart left behind by my son’s absence was red and raw. Then on Wednesday, I heard news that far eclipsed the news of bin Laden’s assassination: In North Carolina, a young soldier suffering from PTSD, my son’s mentor and hero in high school, his unit mate and buddy in Iraq, veteran of the conflict in Afghanistan, father of a new baby, had ended his own life. As I write this, his body is being escorted back to Colorado for burial.
Teddy and Clint, my son and his friend, were brave soldiers who entered the military with the highest ideals. They were serious about their training and they honored each other and their work. When Teddy died, in July 2007, Clint stood at attention with the honor guard throughout the entire memorial service, an occasional tear slipping down his smooth cheek. He came to our home and gave us the gift of stories about his adventures with Teddy.
Now his family will have to endure the unthinkable, and I will mourn and grieve with them. But I will not celebrate, not until our nation turns its attention to the tough questions: Who do we really want to be in this world? And isn’t it time, now, to stop the killing?
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.