Osama bin Laden brings back to the headlines our ten years of war, complicated emotions, and a distinct era in American life and remembrance

I made a special effort to listen to yesterday's broadcast of The World, my favorite radio program, as I wanted to listen to as much commentary and reflection on the death of Osama bin Laden as I could. Sunday night became a sweeping stretch: hours of news broadcasts, Twitter basically exploding with records numbers of tweets over a sustained period, and I was far too alert to go to sleep. But as I sped across some of my favorite blogs and news sites, there wasn't enough being said yet, enough valuable perspective to help digest all of what his death means for the world and our country and the wars we are fighting, so I headed to bed. But we are fighting two wars that began after al Queda sent two planes speeding into the World Trade Center towers back in September of 2001, as well as one into the Pentagon, and one that failed to make it to the White House, but still claimed the lives of its passengers. So this is a significant war-time event, as well as a reminder of the sadness and shock, and the anger, that arose from American people and the families of victims in the wake of the attacked ten years ago. It merits continued reflection now.

The most important reflection to make is that this is another, a continued, act of war, and bin Laden is another body added to the count. He was a man with extreme views, and who inflicted an immense amount of pain upon others during his lifetime, and that is never acceptable. As a wanted enemy of the United States during wartime, he has been in hiding for nearly a decade, because he knew his fate, and he has received it. But he is another dead, and it is more important, to me, to think about the American lives that have been lost in waging this war against the extremists that bin Laden represented--as he was indeed the personification, the face, of the enemy we have been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan for ten years.

So on The World's broadcast, the first show to air after the news of his death, several things brought about the kind of sentiment that best reflects what I am feeling at this time, only part of a wide spectrum of emotions across the United States. The first addresses the issue of killing bin Laden, rather than bringing him to trial. Who better to ask than a lawyer, and one who has stood as a top legal figure for the United States.

Show anchor Lisa Mullins interviewed Ted Olson, former solicitor general under President Bush, whose wife Barbara died on American Airlines Flight 77, the plane that crashed into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

Lisa Mullins: You're a former solicitor general, under President George W. Bush, a man who respects the rule of law and justice. Do you think it would have been better to apprehend and bring to trial bin Laden, versus killing him outright?

Olson: No I don't think so at all. I think that the courageous individuals that went in there in this operation, they had to move quickly and execute quickly. Secondly, this isn't a matter of a criminal trial, this was a matter of a declaration of war against the United States and United States citizens, and you bring that war to a conclusion as quickly as you possibly can. And there wasn't any doubt about what Osama bin Laden had done, there was never any doubt about his goals for continuing to inflict that kind of devastation and misery upon, not just the American people, but people all over the world. It had to be brought to and end.

His answer echoes sentiments I have, as in high-stakes war situations, I want our military men to do what they need to carry out their mission and protect themselves to the extent each case allows. This does not mean sacrifice is absent, but I trust the training they have received to respond with their best judgement in extreme and critical situations.

The same feeling comes from later remarks from former army captain Matt Thompson, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, when he spoke to Lisa Mullins. It has been a long war for our men, in the desert, searching for an enemy and trying to bring resolve, and no matter your thoughts on our intentions, our motives, our involvement, or invasion in the Mid-East, you have to think of our military operatives doing their job--staking out complicated nations, that comes down to spending a lot of time in the hot desert with sand permanently in all crevices. And for those who have served there, I imagine this is exactly how they reacted to the news that Target Number 1 has been apprehended and taken down.

Lisa Mullins: I wonder if there is a part of you, when you heard the news about bin Laden, that thought, well, you know, why couldn't that have happened when I was in Afghanistan?

Thompson: Right, no, absolutely, I mean, I think all of us wish we were on that mission. I think everyone that puts on the uniform wishes that they were on that mission, and had a chance to take the shot, especially people like me, that have been, you know, spent countless hours searching him out in the mountains of Afghanistan.

A death is a death, and it is no small measure to remember that every life is a human soul, one that harbored potential for good and evil both. I am barely able to look at photos of bin Laden now, as they flash all over the news prints and websites and televisions, because I see into his eyes and despair over the evil and hatred that exists in this world, and that pervaded his mind and lead him to commit terrible acts against others. I have complicated emotions about his death. But it is, as Olson said, "a matter of a declaration of war," and so I am happy that we have moved forward, closer to resolution, as a nation who has been battling in, and over, the events of September 11 for ten remarkably tricky, confusing, complex years. My own ambivalence towards our battles continues to grow more gnarly and fills with greater inherent contradiction.

On loss, the human experience

I've been thinking a lot about loss today, about sorrow, and grief, and the things that can tear our lives apart. My Uncle Rick died last night, at the age of 52, of complications from a pulmonary embolism. Not only was it very unexpected, but he is the first of my aunts and uncles to pass away, of my father's siblings and their spouses; everyone is trying to come to terms with it, especially my uncle's children and his wife, my dad's sister, Sally.

On top of that, I have just finished reading Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic by Erskine Clarke, a book whose massive chronology of white and black plantation families in Liberty County, Georgia, contains a century's worth of deaths, from every imaginable cause, during the nineteenth century.

What's more, I was reviewing the Boston Globe's photography page, The Big Picture, which had an extremely touching and heart-wrenching photo report on Afghanistan; it never fails to overwhelm me when I think of the soldiers and civilians who live everyday in the war zone and endure danger, injuries, and deaths of their loved ones and friends on a daily basis, in fact never knowing if they will be the next victim. War punches me in the gut if it catches me in the right moment and I'm feeling emotional.

Just in case I wasn't already at the edge of my emotional capacity and about to topple over the edge, one of my e-mails from the State Department tonight was on the recent conference that was held in Washington, D.C., the Historical Conference on the American Experience in Southeast Asia. Seemingly harmless, you'd think, right? As I listened to Hilary Clinton talk about the legacy of the war in Vietnam, and the tragedies that struck thousands on both sides, I was reminded again of the fragility of human life; the only resolution, to my mind, is empathy  and consideration for one another--we are all going through the same cycles of joy and grief, love and heartbreak, gain and loss in our lives, and what is life if we cannot comfort each other and share our burdens when they grow to heavy?

Secretary Clinton was also announcing that the historians of the State Department had completed processing "an exhaustive record of United States policy regarding Southeast Asia from 1946 until 1975," meaning these records are now available for scholars, students, families, and parties interested in continuing the dialogue we must have with ourselves, with that era of our recent military and diplomatic past. "They have compiled more than 24,000 pages of official documents, many thousands of messages, memoranda, intelligence reports, military assessments, and transcripts of meetings and telephone conversations among key policymakers," she reported. Who knows what will be made of all these documents, but it is one more step in coming to terms with, as Ms. Clinton said, "the lessons of that era," for both Americans and Vietnamese.

I leave you with a bit more from her remarks at the conference; she is optimistic to say the least, idealistic to say the most, and I embrace her words  for both of those characteristics:

I also hope that our commitment to a shared future, despite our shared history, can serve as an inspiration and even a model to others, because there are so many countries who are being held back because they cannot overcome their past, who refuse to search for common ground because the ground behind them is littered with the bodies and the blood of previous generations. In today’s world, it is more imperative than ever that we seek to end conflict and to look for ways that we can connect based on our common humanity. We will not agree on everything. We will have different political systems. But we have to look for a way to find that common ground and to work toward common aspirations that fulfill the potential for peace, progress, and prosperity.


Flying kites

The Kite Runner has already been read by millions, translated and subsequently read in dozens of other languages, but I have only just read it. The book was published in 2003, a ripe time in history for considering the Afghan people, and studying their history and culture in detail, if not to completely understand, at least simply to gain some knowledge of what it must be like to be a citizen of that nation today. With U.S. forces in Afghanistan, it is important to know something about the people there, be familiar with some major cities, its religious system, and indeed, with the mindset of an Afghan person. Reading the story of Amir, the narrator, brought me into the mind of a Muslim boy, first, struggling to decide his religious thoughts in the midst of Muslim teachers and the beliefs of his secular father, and then, into the mind of Muslim man, battling his own demons and ultimately coming to terms with his life. The novel tells Amir's story, with amazing characters scattered all throughout the story; some are glorious; some gloriously evil-- all very poignoint and very tangible. I felt I was struggling with the characters through the entire story. When there was death, sadness, joy, celebration, struggle, I left all those things as if they were my own friends and family. Adding to the depth emotion, I felt I could understand the Afghan Muslim mindset, and the code of honor and tradition maintained in the culture, even while being an American woman reading the story. More than anything, the book made me feel for Afghanistan. The last thirty years of the nation's history read like a nightmare: peace in the streets and kite runners battling in them, transformed first by a coup (ending the monarchy), then the invasion of the Russians, then civil war, political factions, and eventually, the takeover by the Taliban. Only recently, I gleaned from the story, is there even the possibility of some governmental proceedings taking place. The story is clearly expresses the sadness author Khaled Hosseini feels over his homeland, and what the last years of violence have done to it. Violence, needless murders, food shortages, missing children and child abuse, bombings, destruction, lawlessness-- the smells and sights described before 1978 are so vivid, and in such direct contrast to the ravaged, littered and dilapidated country Amir sees when he returns in 2001 (having been gone since emigrating in 1981). I had not known a whole lot of Afghanistan's recent history, and when reading this story I really felt an honest, gut-wrenching hatred for the Taliban's policy of violence and murder. I feel more connected to the people living in Afghanistan than I ever have. I feel for them, I hate that children live in squalor with no hope of escaping, and no one to stand up for their rights.

Not meaning for this to sound like a rant or a book review, though I fear it may be a combination of both. What I mean is to express the pain I felt, for the people of Afghanistan. I can never again think of that country as merely a place on map; I feel more connected than ever, even while never having been there, nor speaking the language. But within the history of the last thirty years, I see the strength and courage it takes to live there. Many may have no choice in the end, but hope is powerful force, and I'd like to think there are bright glimmers of hope for Afghanistan.

There is still a lot violence on the streets every day in Afghanistan. For additional reading (besides The Kite Runner, obviously), NPR has a recent report on assassinations of political, social, and religious leaders and activists. I also read a really interesting collection of stories from various peoples' lives in Afghanistan now, but cannot seem to relocate that report now that I'm trying to find it. Expect an update later if I have luck.