Celebration or Time to Reflect?

Reststop on N-35 Highway near Abbottabad, Pakistan Photo: Colin Christopher

Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader. He was a mass murderer of Muslims. Indeed, al Qaeda has slaughtered scores of Muslims in many countries, including our own.

Last night, President Obama exemplified the dignity, honor, and humility of most public servants around the world when he placed the death of Osama bin Laden into context. While thousands of people shamelessly celebrated outside the White House, some singing “We Are the Champions,” President Obama delivered a speech of humility and perspective.

For those who lost loved ones on September 11th and the operations and wars that followed, the death of bin Laden is likely to spark a range of emotions, with a likely sense of relief and reminder of pain. And regardless of how one was affected by that dark day–whether in Manhattan, Manchester, or Manila–this is a time to reflect, to step back from all that has happened and think about how each of us relate to September 11, 2001, and now, May 1, 2011.

Personally, the death of bin Laden brings me back not to September 11th when I was sitting in Ms. Chinn’s calculus class as a Senior in high school. Last night’s event take me back to late January 2007 on a day when I was riding a local bus from Islamabad to Gilgit in northern Pakistan. The accompanying passengers on the bus were all local Pakistanis, many of them with long gray beards dressed in typical pathani shalwar kameez garb, popular for its modesty, and breathability in hot weather and warmth in cold weather. Despite bin Laden being of Yemeni Arab descent, to say that many men sitting next to me did not resemble him in dress and physical appearance would be a lie. But that was where the resemblance ended.

Karakoram Highway, Gilgit River, Pakistan Photo: Colin Christopher

Our first stop in our 24-hour journey was near Abbottobad, the town where bin Laden was reportedly killed on May 1. I got out of the bus, stretched my legs for a few minutes, drank a cup of chai, and reboarded. Five or six hours later at the next rest break, many of the men on the bus begged me to remain on board, and to look preoccupied, or better yet, asleep. When I asked why, most responded, “Taliban. Even we don’t get off the bus at this stop.” While it’s important to remember that the Taliban are not the same as Al Qaeda, as most violent “Islamic”extremist organizations have very different political and social objectives, that wasn’t of primary concern to me while sitting on the bus parked outside of a Taliban stronghold known to the general Pakistani public. I just wanted to get to my final destination in the stunningly beautiful Hunza Valley.

When news of bin Laden’s death surfaced last night, I immediately contacted my friends in Pakistan to gauge their reaction. One friend living in Peshawar wrote that “given Pakistan’s problems of inflation, energy shortages, and unemployment, no one really cares.” But we should remember that the combined number of civilian casualties from terrorist attacks from  2001 to 2010 in Pakistan was more than twice the number of those killed on September 11th, even when excluding innocents killed through US drone strikes. Pakistanis continue to be terrorized by violent extremists daily, and in the three separate times I have visited Pakistan from 2005 to 2009, not once did I ever hear anyone publicly state their support for bin Laden and extremism.

While the lives of the men on that Gilgit-bound bus and mine are noticeably different in some ways, we share the most important core concepts of respect for human life and compassion for strangers, loved ones, and anyone else. Bin Laden and others like him will be missed by neither Americans nor Pakistanis, or 99.9% of anyone else for that matter.

Instead of waving American flags and engaging in inappropriate displays of machismo, let’s reflect upon what feelings these events bring up for us, and what that says about who we are, and how we view other people and value human life.

11 thoughts on “Celebration or Time to Reflect?

  1. Thanks for writing this piece, as well as briefly sharing your personal experience. The quote you selected by President Obama is what concerned me the most as he delivered his speech because of the repercussions it may have. He defined who a Muslim is and isn’t, and I wonder what sort of a response that will garner from those within the Muslim community. While Bin Laden’s death is a symbolic act, it should not distract us from the fact that this sort of mentality still exists. And that it can only be adequately combated through genuine conversation and want of understanding, not self-interest.

  2. What a thought provoking article, in the midst of such euphoria that many feel at the death of Osama bin Laden. It is indeed a time to reflect, and your experience on the bus in Pakistan illustrates to those of us without those experiences that we are all indeed the same, even in our differences. How we dress does not dictate who we represent and the kindness of the strangers on the bus who had your welfare at heart is indicative of that humanity that you can find anywhere in the world. It is unfortunate that a few despicable people can create an image that permeates the media and sends the message that all who dress and look like Bin Laden are of like mind. I am sure that you and your family are very grateful for the kindness of strangers, in a land unfamiliar, who took care of you. Let’s not malign all Pakistani citizens because of one Yemeni man. We must remember that bin Laden is not representative of most Muslims nor was Timothy McVeigh representative of most Christians. Celebration or reflection? I’ll take reflection.

  3. This is an excellent post. Your personal experiences in Pakistan add a dimension to present events. There needs to be a sense of balance applied to everything. However, to say that that this is merely a “symbolic act” dismisses the raw emotions felt by people all over the world by the news of his death. I predict that the inappropriate euphoria expressed right after news of his death will end shortly but to expect people to immediately feel only rational thoughts is totally unrealistic.

  4. When I watched President Obama’s speech live on television, I immediately thought of the events of September 11th and the feelings I had in the days, weeks, months, and years to follow.

    I was at work on 35th st, between 7th and 8th when the first airplane hit a few minutes after 8 am on September 11th. We initially thought it was an accident, but later came to realize that our hopes of it being a misguided plane were incorrect once the second plane hit. Everyone gathered in the office and we watched the horrifying scenes on television. I kept thinking about the people on those planes and the people in the buildings and felt awful. I went downstairs to get a coffee and saw thousands of people quickly moving uptown with a sense of desperation displayed on their faces. At 3 pm, once the subways started running again, I went home.

    I remember the deep pain I felt the the next day, September 12th, 2001, in the Bronx subway station where I live. Every day while waiting for the train, I would look south and see the wonderful towers in the horizon. On September 12th, only smoke. I came out on 34th st. and had never seen the streets of New York so empty before. Only a few people on the streets, and with rare car passing by. I bought a coffee and newspaper, and went to work. Only a few people came to work that day and at about 11 AM, the boss called us and told us that we could go home.

    During the days that followed September 11th, I went to the World Trade Center and I felt great pain just looking at the site that I once liked so much. Even months later when I went there, I felt the smell of smoke. All that beauty that I used to see when I left work everyday and the cheerful faces of the people, now look look different.

    I used to visit the World Trade Center from time to time to see the rebuilding work being done, but for some reason, I have been impatient to once again see the buildings grow once again, into the sky. On May 1, 2011, however, as I normally had done, I went to the site of the World Trade Center to see the progress of the buildings and take some pictures. Later that night, I watched our President on television and felt proud that we are Americans.

  5. Thank you for this post and for sharing such a personal experience. I think the other comments are an excellent illustration of how each of us needed to reflect on the news in a different way. I wrote a blog post about this as a native New Yorker. Here is how it started:

    The news is jaw dropping. It is raw, huge. It fills the room, the country, the world. Osama bin-Laden is dead.
    I wrote a blog post just a few days ago about teachable moments with the tenth anniversary of 9/11 in mind. I could not have imagined that bin Laden would be killed by US special forces days later.
    I am from New York. I am American. I am a world citizen, or at least someone who aims to be. I have written extensively about Islamophobia as a result of 9/11.
    I feel a flood of emotions – they range from grateful to numb, relief to sadness. People on Facebook are arguing over who deserves the credit – “Bush or Obama.” Others are celebrating in the streets outside of the White House chanting “USA.” I’m proud of my country, however I want someone to be standing outside that building holding up a sign that says “Peace.”
    (Feel free to read more: http://melibeeglobal.com/2011/05/osama-bin-laden-dead-where-does-one-begin/)
    Peace, Missy
    Missy Gluckmann, Founder
    Melibee Global Education

  6. It was uncomfortable for me to watch President Obama speak. May 1 reminded me of September 11 also, and Obama’s speech sounded Bush-esque in its rhetoric. It was uncomfortable for me as a person of color and as an immigrant who has witnessed violence and upheaval first-hand, observed nations around the world suffer because of American foreign policy and then be placated by its foreign aid.

    Dr. King said, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

    The raw emotions and euphoria have already led to actions that make me and my minority friends — Muslim and otherwise — be on guard, tense, sometimes defensive, and once again, simply uncomfortable: http://www.pressherald.com/news/Graffiti-on-Portland-mosque-under-investigation.html

    It is not easy for me to endorse raw emotions running rampant when they may affect the well-being of those around me. Turning to rational thinking is not a decision of luxury, but rather one of necessity.

  7. Nicely written, I love the way you deal with issue of celebration here. We need a million more voices like yours in cyber space.

  8. On September 12th I belive that me and my friend Igor were the only civilians on top of the rubble that used to be the twin towers after passing 4 security checkpoints by hanging under fire trucks or slipping in as humanitarian workers. We felt deeply in our beings that this event was very significant and that things wouldn’t be the same thereafter. Being young and stupid we mustered the courage to witness things first hand and took the risks we did. Another stranger that we befriended on the way backed out on the last security checpoint as the tension of the situation could be felt in the heavy air. As we made our way to the pile, handing out water and snacks to the most curageous people on the planet, the city’s firefighters, an erie silence set in as rescuers were trying to hear for any faint signs of life. All of a sudden an anouncemt came that a building right next to the towers was unstable and in danger of collapsing. Being engulfed by the most gut-wrenching fear and seeing everyone literally ‘run for their life’ was the the most genuine and humbling moment. It puts everything in perspective. A philosophical discussion could commence at this point but Ill just say that there’s nothing to celebrate about bin Ladens death. The feelings of closure, relief and the knowledge that justice has finally been served are the celebratory feelings that we could have. Standing at the top of burning rubble, hearing the crackling sound of fires that God knows how many it consumed and the shifting sound of melting steel, I can only pause and reflect.

  9. Great post…you are absolutely right in pointing out what this war on terror has done to our people (the violence, tension and paranoia etc). What I meant by ‘no one really cares’ is two things, one OBL’s death means not a lot to us Pakistanis, his organization just wasn’t a big enough part of the this whole terrorism/taliban game in Pakistan.

    Secondly, the rise of militancy and the terrorist mindset (imported from abroad) and its spread in our areas can be directly linked to the poverty or the failure of governance. If we had a State in which the rich paid their taxes (or not stole blatantly form the the State), had efficient law enforcing agencies, public health, transport and health….all this would not have been played out in our backyard, or front-yard as I live in Peshawar.

  10. I just read your article and absolutely agree with your point of view and have been advocating similar views about the whole issue. Obviously I am not sad about OBL’s death at all (in fact I have to admit I feel happy about it) but I feel that it would have been much better if the Pakistani government was kept in the loop when the CIA had confirmed info bout his whereabouts and the Pakistani govt. should have conducted the operation. This would have prevented stoking the anti-american sentiment in Pakistan concerning how they’re invading us, taking away our autonomy and sovereignty, how it’s their war etc. etc. and Also would have given some credibility to both country’s government. Secondly, I would have preferred that he was taken alive and then faced a trial, i really don’t understand how “national security” sensitivity trumps all law and justice principles and procedures. Finally, as a matter of principle, violence only begets more violence. The Afghanistan and Iraq invasion, and Pakistani drone attacks, have been seriously counterproductive for american security and have made the world worst off overall. The wars were the worst possible response to the terrorist attack; instead what Americans needed to learn from that was the reasons behind such hate and try to ameliorate the situation so that it never happens again rather than increasing the same hate that lead to the attack in the first place.

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