Meeks’ Message From Capitol Hill
Like most New Yorkers and most Americans, I have been consumed with contrasting emotions from the instant my congressional alert, blackberry, cell phone, land line, email, and television went off repeatedly and almost simultaneously late on the Sunday before last with news that Osama bin Laden was dead and President Barack Obama would shortly speak to the nation. The president’s words resonated throughout the nation as he confirmed what hundreds of millions of Americans had longed to hear for nearly ten years.
Four days later, I was among the firefighters, police officers, current and former elected officials, and families of 9/11 victims, who joined President Obama at Ground Zero for a wreath-laying ceremony that closed a painful chapter in the ongoing saga of America’s war with al Qaeda, the world’s foremost terrorist network. It was at this moment that my contrasting emotions asserted themselves. While it was great to see a new World Trade Center rise from the gigantic hole Osama bin Laden left at the site and in our hearts, I remembered visiting Ground Zero a few days after the collapse of the Twin Towers. Standing amid the rebuilding, my mind flashed back to the vastness of the carnage I had witnessed, the smell of death, the simmering debris, the first responders and volunteers risking their own health and safety to sift through the rubble in hope of finding survivors, and the constituents and friends who were among the 3,000 Americans and other nationals that Osama bin Laden targeted in the war he declared on America.
All faiths teach that we should not revel in the death of any human being. I admit to feeling no remorse for the demise of bin Laden. Nor am I critical of those Americans, mainly young, who flocked to the White House, Ground Zero, Times Square, and other locations by the thousands to cheer the success of an amazingly difficult mission and to acknowledge the commander-in-chief whose exceptionally courageous decision-making had brought America to such an extraordinary triumph. I distinguish between being triumphant and triumphalism. The latter has no place in our foreign policy or antiterrorism efforts. The president deserves our congratulations for his leadership in helping the nation walk this fine line.
I agree as well with his decision not to release photos of bin Laden’s corpse. Within minutes all sorts of paraphernalia bearing that morbid image would have been available on the Internet. Within hours venders would have been hawking T-shirts with that likeness at every imaginable public event.
Deeper reflection explains the spontaneous turnout. Think of the burden Americans bore on 9/11 and since. Think of the age range of most of the people who turned out. They were grade-schoolers when the attacks occurred. Fear of another bin Laden-inspired terrorist attack has been all they have known.
Think of the cost to America and the world: The cost of the destruction of the World Trade Center and the damage to the Pentagon, extraordinary in itself, and the expense of rebuilding both; the direct and indirect destruction of over 100,000 jobs; the setback to aviation and commerce, which pushed the economy to the verge of recession.
Without bin Laden’s leadership in conceptualizing, approving, planning, financing, and carrying out the 9/11 attacks, there would be no war in Afghanistan and no pretext for the invasion of Iraq with the combined cost of several trillion dollars. Homeland security, which has drained our treasury of at least another trillion dollars, wouldn’t be part of our lexicon. Then there’s the cost of fear and the restructuring of American democracy, American values, and American everyday life with the Patriot Act, warrantless wiretaps, Guantanamo, the Iraq war, Abu Ghraib, and the profiling of Muslim Americans. There’s the cost of the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Kenya, the suicide attack on the U.S.S. Cole, the first bombing of the Twin Towers, and the cost to our confidence of bin Laden’s ability year after year to elude capture to the point that most Americans thought it would never happen.
But it has happened. And it has happened on this president’s watch and under his leadership. Saying so does not diminish the efforts of previous administrations. What diminishes this singular achievement – above all, the skill, courage, and capability of the military personnel that undertook this mission – are claims that finding bin Laden justifies the use of torture; attempts to belittle the caliber of President Obama’s national security team; efforts to make stories out of non-stories about whether or not Mr. Obama’s bump in the polls will last; and Navy-gazing that questions why the Navy SEALs shot an “unarmed” bin Laden.
These are “insider stories.” Whether or not the death of bin Laden works to Mr. Obama’s favor in the next election is quite beside the point. What the killing of bin Laden tells Americans is that they have a commander-in-chief who is detailed and decisive in his decision-making, intelligence professionals who are persevering and exceptionally competent, and a military composed of men and women of extraordinary courage and capacity who will get the job done however long it takes and to whatever venues the pursuit of justice takes them.