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The killing of bin Laden and the American response

The reaction in America to the news that Osama bin Laden was killed by US commandos is not what it seems from the media reports.

The TV images have focused on the groups of people waving flags and shouting "USA-USA-USA" in Times Square in New York and in front of the White House in Washington. It is presented as if the whole country is re-experiencing V-E Day 1945, with strangers stopping to kiss soldiers in Times Square. There is even some claiming there is a nasty side to the cheering, seeing it as a celebration of blood-lust vengeance or mindless patriotism run riot.   

You could easily think that this is the mass response from the media reports, but you would be wrong. Most people are not spontaneously going out to the streets, nor even celebrating much indoors either. The response  has been much more sober than triumphalist. When asked about how the surviving families would react, Harry Waizer, a World Trade Center survivor himself, said: " Many of them will be grateful he has finally been brought to justice. But many of them will feel that whatever the justice of this, it won't bring back the people they lost." That seemed to me to be closer to the reality of the response that most people had.

The spontaneous gatherings that did occur were not mean-spirited as some - especially foreign reports, such as this one  in Britain's Guardian - would suggest. In fact, the crowds in New York were mostly filled with young adults, who were around 10 years old when 9/11 happened, and tourists. The atmosphere was more like the celebration of a sports championship than anything overtly political or militaristic.

And after living through a decade of terror warnings, who could blame someone if they wanted to take a moment to cheer? Those who criticize the crowds - for being in poor taste because they were celebrating death - ignore the broader context: namely, that moral justice was served. It is as if the critics don't believe anyone - even Osama bin Laden - should be judged morally.

It's important to note that the response would probably have been much different - more intense and public - if bin Laden had been killed shortly after 9/11. But nearly a decade later, he had become a somewhat forgotten man. He would only pop up in the news from time to time to make a boring pronouncement, like on climate change (in fact, he sounded more and more like a Western green than an Islamic hardliner). 

After 9/11, the Bush administration tried to make the "war on terror" equivalent to the Cold War. But a so-called war on a tactic, which has never had clear definitions or aims, would never be the same as the Cold War, which dominated domestic and international affairs. Over time, the anti-terror campaign's purchase on the public imagination petered out, as the mundane reality could not live up to the panicked hype. In the past, people clamoured for greater airport security; now they complain that security staff are allowed to touch their "junk".  The terror issue is no longer top of mind, and Osama's demise came as a reminder that it still continued, some years after most people had moved on. 

President Obama announced that he would be travelling to the Ground Zero site in Manhattan on Thursday. Obama said he wants to use the event to create a sense of national unity. Speaking yesterday evening, he said: “We were reminded again that there is a pride in what this nation stands for, and what we can achieve, that runs far deeper than party, far deeper than politics. It is my fervent hope that we can harness some of that unity and some of that pride to confront the many challenges that we still face."

But Obama and others are expecting too much from the response to the killing of a leader of a small (though deadly) terrorist group: it is as if he thinks all his problems can be solved in a feel-good moment. The bipartisan political response to 9/11 was to elevate Al Qaeda to be an existential threat to the American way of life; and now, in bin Laden's death, Obama is seeking to elevate this event into something bigger than it really is. Or to put it another way: if the US needs to point to the bin Laden execution as a major source of national pride, then it really is in trouble.

NBC News' anchor David Gregory said the news of bin Laden's death was so momentous that people will always remember where they were when they first heard the news, the way people still talk about when they first heard President Kennedy was shot. I doubt it. But I do expect the Obama White House will try very hard to not let us to forget it, as it attempts to utilize bin Laden's killing for its own political purposes.

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