SAN FRANCISCO—When I hear the name Osama bid Laden, what comes to mind is watching the attack on the Twin Towers on my parents’ TV in the kitchen nearly 10 years ago and not really understanding what I was seeing.
On my way to San Francisco’s George Washington High School, where I was a freshman, I remember the awkward discussion two men were having at the front of the bus about the fall of the first tower. Later, as I hurried into my classroom before second period, I was struck by the uncomfortable expressions on the faces of my JROTC instructors.
The events that followed on Sept. 11, 2001, brought an informational media overload my brain was incapable of understanding, under headlines like “America Under Attack” and “War on Terror.” I’d never heard the word “terrorist” before and thought it was created specifically for 9/11. The concept of war, terror and terrorists in the modern world were lost on me.
Following Sunday’s announcement that Osama bid Laden had been killed, news reports started popping up about large groups of young people gathered in front of the White House, chanting, “USA, USA!”
This description of the scene left me confused, mainly because I wasn’t sure what they were cheering for. Victory? Not likely. Were they cheering for an end to invasions of our personal space in the name of Homeland Security? Outlook: not so good.
So what were these young people cheering for? The only conclusion I came to stemmed from watching way too many movies. When the really, really bad guy dies, the audience feels a victorious sense of community.
Most Americans don’t need to know much of bin Laden’s back-story or have historical discussions to convince them of how bad he was. The superficial nuggets of his subversive lifestyle make it all too clear. He killed a lot of people, and now he’s dead. The end. We won; party at my place.
Putting it in the context of historical/pop culture figures such as Hitler, we all know from history class that bin Laden was bad news. But coming from either position where you were a) too young to understand what was going on, or b) weren’t born yet, the whole War on Terror probably played out like more of a vague Tale of Death and Justice you may have seen as a made-for-TV movie.
For me, the end of bin Laden brought images of The Wizard of Oz. The inhabitants of Oz feared the Wicked Witch of the West, but before Dorothy melted her with a bucket of water, not all of them might have experienced her evil acts firsthand. Maybe their parents or grandparents got the brunt of the terror treatment. But by the time they celebrated the death of the Wicked Witch, they weren’t necessarily celebrating because of their own suffering, but for the collective memory bank they had in the years following the series of unfortunate events.
The collective cultural images associated with Osama for many young people include people jumping from the falling towers, coffins of troops killed in Iraq, garbled videotapes of bin Laden in obscure caves and the repetitive promises from the American government to punish those who attacked us.
It is unfortunate that the current celebration gives the impression to so many people that the so-called war is over and all will be well, now that the man pulling the puppet strings is supposedly buried at the bottom of the ocean.
The reality, though, isn’t like a major action movie or a video game where the bad guy is killed and the world turns into a better place.
My fear is that the naive frame of mind among the young people celebrating in the streets might ultimately allow their warped sense of “winning” to affect the outcome of any future conflicts that may arise. Would they somehow spin it into a pop culture PSA titled “America All the Way”?
As these young celebrants grow older, I wonder how they’ll be able reconcile the over-hyped image of their younger selves chanting “USA, USA,” and their responsibility to oversee the potential of their country.
While the Wicked Terrorist of the Middle East may be dead, his impact on future generations, like that of so many other “evil villains,” is just beginning.
Eming Piansay is a contributor at New America Media.