To me, the most momentous phrase in the American lexicon is when a friend calls up and says some version of the following:
"Turn on your television... to any channel."
This is a scary phrase, for the most part, because of what it implies: some momentous event has not only happened, but all the television networks have switched over to live coverage of the news. You switch on your TV, and you don't even have to hunt for whatever's going on, because there it is on all of the possible serious channels. Last night, America had another of these moments.
What made it different than all the other such "any channel" moments in the past decade, though, was that the news was not bad. We did not hear about a natural disaster occurring, we did not hear about a space shuttle disintegrating, and we did not hear about a war starting. Instead, we heard about the death of America's number one sworn enemy, Osama Bin Laden. While realizing that "celebrating" anyone's death is not just a little bit unseemly, it was hard to see last night's news as anything but good for the United States of America.
A quote making the rounds online sums it up pretty well: "I have never killed any one, but I have read some obituary notices with great satisfaction." This thought may have come from either Clarence Darrow or Mark Twain, but whoever penned it originally did a nice job of describing the mood of many Americans when they heard the news of Osama Bin Laden's death.
Killing one man isn't going to change the world overnight. Al Qaeda still exists, and Bin Laden may have been more of a figurehead than the actual brains behind the organization. But, again, it's hard to see how Bin Laden's death isn't good news for America and bad news for the Al Qaeda organization. Burying him at sea was the most brilliant part of the operation, because it denies his followers a shrine to make pilgrimages to in the future.
The real question, in terms of consequences, will be how it changes the war in Afghanistan. This is something that, right now, is impossible to foresee. Al Qaeda is not the Taliban, nor vice versa. The fighting in Afghanistan, and the drone attacks in Pakistan, may simply go on much the same as if Bin Laden were still alive. The fight may get easier for the United States, and it may get harder -- like I said, at this point it is impossible to do any more than speculate.
Politically, taking Bin Laden out is obviously going to help President Obama, but my guess is that this will be more of a "background" thing, and not (as some are already prematurely proclaiming) a guarantee of his re-election. The 2012 election is a long way off, and Americans have a very short memory, for the most part. The political implications for Obama may be subtle -- a short bump in the polls, perhaps followed by more people (especially independent voters) being a bit more willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt. But it's not going to change the upcoming budget fights with Republicans much -- I think it'll be much more nuanced than that.
Americans do normally rally around the president in momentous times, both good and bad. There will be a period where this plays out, for the next few weeks. Obama was right last night, too -- this is an American thing, it's not a "Democrat versus Republican" thing. Neither side should -- in any way, shape, or form -- try to use Bin Laden's death in a political way. Most likely, neither side will (except for the fringes on both sides, perhaps). Even Rush Limbaugh said some mighty nice things about President Obama on his show today -- this shows the depths of how the entire event affects all Americans as one.
Our country as a whole was attacked, almost ten years ago. No political party was attacked, no political faction was targeted more than any other. The very idea of our nation was attacked, instead. This is how we saw the attacks when they happened, and this is how we should treat the bookend of Osama Bin Laden's death as well.
Last week, I wrote an article which posed the question: "Should America Assassinate?" Written to take a look at the moral justifications for America targeting individuals, it engendered a lively discussion over what constitutes "assassination" and what is a "valid military target." I claim no inside knowledge of the events in Pakistan, instead I was spurred to write the article because of the situation in Libya. But I did use Bin Laden as an example, when I wrote:
Jumping forward to today's world, I don't think anyone would argue that (for instance) targeting Osama Bin Laden with a cruise missile wouldn't be justifiable. It would indeed be an assassination (under a loose definition) of a single man by the United States military, but this man has already attacked us directly -- even if he is not a political figure or head of state. My guess is that few tears would be shed in America if we were to take Bin Laden out in this fashion, and few people would even bring up the morality of assassinating individuals in the resulting discussion afterwards. In fact, we have tried to kill Bin Laden in such a fashion already, under President Bill Clinton.
Now that this has come to pass, I stand by what I wrote. Bin Laden was about as valid a military target as you can imagine. He reveled in his status as America's number one enemy. He's the one who personally declared war on us, not the other way around. President Obama reportedly decided not to bomb the compound flat, but rather chose the more risky direct assault, because he knew how important proof that we had gotten our man to the rest of the world (and to Al Qaeda itself). But, had Obama chosen cruise missiles instead, I don't think I would have felt any differently today.
Today is a day where America breathes a collective sigh of relief, in perfect unison. For once, the news on "any channel" was good news. Instead of seeing a deadly fire, earthquake, tsunami, tornado, or hurricane, we saw our president telling us that America had achieved a long-held goal. Instead of seeing news of some horrible accident of a space shuttle disaster, all of America paused to hear: "We finally got him." Osama Bin Laden was America's sworn enemy, and had declared war upon us all. Three thousand people died ten years ago because of this man's twisted mind. Now he's gone, and I think we all personally heard his "obituary" with great pleasure.
[Program Note: We had our monthly "Obama Poll Watch" column scheduled for today, but it was decided to bump it to Wednesday, for obvious reasons.]
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant