In uncertain times like these, there is a thrill to be had in the occasional moment of moral clarity. Osama bin Laden’s death on Sunday was one such moment. Let’s hope it marks the close of an era lived in the shadow of September 11th, and the start of a period devoted to the more complex, but equally patriotic task of solving our country’s stubborn domestic problems–even if it rarely evokes the same sense of national unity as hunting a Bin Laden.
September 11th is a buried memory for me. But the shocking news Sunday night brought it vaguely back to life. We were still looking for that guy? Has it really been ten years?
September 11, 2001 was my second day of ninth grade at the Ramaz School in Manhattan. I was in the throes of freshman jitters, still getting used to waking up at 6 am for my school bus commute from Teaneck, NJ. Shortly after getting to school that day, though, the principal announced the attack on the World Trade Center over the loudspeaker. My adolescent anxieties were immediately supplanted by more pressing fears. Were we safe? Were our parents safe?
Bad news awaited me at home in New Jersey. The parents of two elementary school friends were missing. It would take months to confirm their deaths. The mood in my house was somber and anxious.
Almost ten years later, my friends’ loved ones are still gone. Nothing can bring them back.
I like to think of Bin Laden’s death not as closure for their deaths, but as the closing of a chapter in the country’s history. For nearly a decade we have turned our vast resources outward, pursuing enemies the world over—some real, some imagined. Even as our nation grew more unequal, Wall Street speculation steadily engulfed the economy, and the health and standards of living for most of our nation’s citizens deteriorated, we drew a sense of unity and pride, for a while at least, from our commitment to “defeating the terrorists” who had perpetrated 9/11. We were still a great nation, it seemed, because we could take it to the bad guys, and make them pay for their crimes.
In the end, our national obsession with avenging 9/11 failed both to catch the criminal responsible for the act (we spent billions of dollars and inestimable amounts of human life in wars that, arguably, until now, had not resulted in Osama bin Laden’s death or capture), and to bolster our national self-esteem (the world viewed us, and we felt, like failures). It allowed us to be swept up into the horrific and misbegotten Iraq War, as well as tolerate significant rollbacks of our civil liberties and a dangerous rise in Islamophobia. Terrorists emboldened; country dejected.
Meanwhile, the damage of neglecting the home front has been incalculable, including to the service men and women who risked their lives at Ground Zero and in Iraq and Afghanistan. Could it be any more ironic that Bin Laden’s death comes only five months after Congress passed the law paying for the health care expenses incurred by the cancer-stricken 9/11 rescue workers?! Then again, maybe it is poetic that the former only happened after the latter came to be.
The fight against terrorism must no doubt continue. But maybe with Bin Laden gone, we can turn our formidable attention to the more contentious and less euphoric pursuit of domestic nation-building. Our biggest priorities right now should be ending unemployment, reforming our financial and health care systems, and fighting climate change and other environmental disasters. Accomplishing those tasks will require us to work together in unprecedented ways to challenge entrenched interests. It will not always unite us as a country, or give us a warm and fuzzy feeling inside the way the hunt for Bin Laden did.
Consider the healthcare reform battle. There was no health care crisis moment akin to 9/11 for the country to rally around. It took years of momentum, and a watershed presidential election, followed by months of tense partisan wrangling, compromising with special interests and town-hall shouting matches that almost tore the country apart. When the President signed the law giving 30 million Americans health insurance, crowds massed outside the White House—only they were protesting, not celebrating, as they were after Bin Laden’s death. And yet there is no doubt that is was the right thing to do. We are a better country for it.
Likewise, if we succeed in providing relief to the million families whose homes were foreclosed upon, and the 14 million Americans who remain unemployed, or reducing our deficit by taxing the rich, rather than slashing Social Security and Medicare, it will be because of persistence and good organizing, not because of heart-rending footage we see on TV.
The mundane work of building a stronger, happier and more compassionate country is far less of a rush then nailing the bad guy. And frankly, it is also more divisive. But it is no less of a patriotic duty. Our fellow Americans need us. Once the understandable joy over Bin Laden’s death peters out, we should embrace domestic nation-building with the dedication of genuine patriots.