When we learned last night that Osama bin Laden had been killed, my thoughts turned to April 2000 and a Cub Scout trip I helped lead at FBI headquarters in Boston. An account of that trip is still online. One memory that clearly stands out is explaining who bin Laden was to a group of 9-year-olds. We were still nearly a year and a half away from 9/11, but bin Laden was already number one on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List.
Certain aspects of 9/11 remain vivid, too. I remember running into someone I hadn’t seen for many years outside the Boston Phoenix. She told me about the first tower having been hit. At that point, we were all assuming it was a horrible accident. Soon, though, we learned that the country was under attack. The Phoenix did not have a reliable television hook-up, so I raced home (I heard a live account of the second tower being hit on the car radio) and stayed up all night writing this.
When a historic news story such as the killing of bin Laden breaks, the instinct is to turn inward and reflect on personal matters. There’s no way I can add to the enormity of the moment. But we can all offer memories and perceptions, and thus add in some small way to the national conversation that began at about 10 p.m. on Sunday, when we learned that President Obama would address the nation at 10:30. (As we know, it turned out to be more than an hour after that.)
I didn’t have the TV on, but I was scanning Twitter. Within minutes, we were speculating as to what it could be about. Without any information whatsoever, a few people guessed it might have something to do with bin Laden. I saw several jokes about an asteroid headed toward earth. I wondered whether a major terrorist plot had been exposed, or if the Fukushima nuclear power plant might be in full meltdown. Even after I turned on the television, I was learning more, faster, from Twitter than I was from Wolf Blitzer and company.
Soon we knew the truth, emerging in bits and pieces. Bin Laden had been captured. He’d died. No, he’d been killed — not by a bomb, but by U.S. special forces who went in and shot him. How can you not love that? I only hope that in his final moments, bin Laden knew the Americans had come for him.
The president’s speech was short and eloquent. Given how easily the mission could have gone wrong, he made a gutsy call. For those of us over 50, it was hard not to remember the disaster in the Iranian desert under Jimmy Carter in 1980. Skill and courage are not enough — you’ve got to be lucky, too.
Coming at the end of the week in which extremist elements in the Republican Party had already been made to look especially small and mean, it was hard not to gloat. (And you’ve got to see this.) I saw more than few predictions that Obama had just ensured his re-election — an observation that I found inappropriate to the moment, not to mention premature. After all, George H.W. Bush looked unbeatable in the spring of 1991 following the Gulf War. He was done in by the economy, and it could happen to Obama, too.
Nevertheless, it stands as the signature moment of the Obama presidency, and something that I suspect will lift the national mood for some time to come.