I'm writing down my thoughts on this historic night not because these thoughts are particularly unique, or possess wisdom that needs to be heard, but rather because years from now, I will want a memory of exactly how I felt on this night. This is for me.
It's important for me to write this because our memories are so fickle, our self-image so adaptable. Almost ten years ago, in the wake of the horrific tragedy on 9/11, our nation mourned in a fashion it had never really mourned before. We had endured calamity before, but never had we left the event with no one else to blame except for a single, haunting face. The blank, dead-eyed stare of Osama Bin Laden, peering out of a narrow, grizzled face, haunted us.
In the months that followed, we raged against him. Celebrities put out bounties on Bin Laden’s head. Country singers pledged that America would “put a boot in [his] ass.” Hard-hitting proclamations of impending justice from President Bush were met with racous cheers. In November, his handling of the War on Terror had a 90% approval rating. We were united in righteous fury.
But time passed. Our anger faded as we learned to handle our grief. We forgot how we’d felt then, and the emotions that had swept through us seemed now to belong to other people. We were certain that even in our grief, we’d always held the perspective that we then possessed. We’d always found showy patriotism cloying. We’d always hated the war. We’d always realized that killing Bin Laden would change nothing. Even when everyone around us had failed to recognize these things, we had always known them.
We will look back on this night much differently than how we looked at it tonight.
The celebration outside of the White House will seem impossibly garish and tasteless. The endless line of Twitter jokes childish. We will forget the unity, the relief we felt this night, and remember only the darkness. We will sniff contemptuously at the spectacle of making merry at someone’s death.
But ten years ago, we collectively wept at the actions at this man. Thousands died from his actions, and tens of thousands more as we worked to make the world a place where such actions could never happen again. There is crassness to celebrating the death of a man, any man, but there is no shame in feeling relief at the close of a long and draining endeavor. There is no disgrace in feeling pride in your nation, in your government, in your military, on a night like this. Smile and let your heart be lighter. Raise your glass. There is time for reflection in the morning. You’ll probably want to take a second look at some of those tweets.
The last thing I want to write is the most complicated to explain, likely because my own feelings are so hard for me to understand. I seem to be a man divided: as an American, I wholeheartedly celebrate our victory, but as a Christian, it is hard to rejoice in what I believe is the almost certain condemnation of a man to hell. Death is not something I am much familiar in commemorating.
Yet I recognize that choices on this earth are harder than simple black-and-white questions. That I can blather endless on about grace, but when it comes to evil and hard choices, I am much more Bonhoeffer than I am Nouwen. And so I believe I will always look back on this night with more good feelings than bad.
But it’s much too soon to really know.