It is hard not to get swept up in the euphoria that so many Americans felt upon the news that the dreaded Osama bin Laden had been “taken out” by a U.S. special unit on May 1, even if a more somber, ponderous response is more apropos.
It was ironic that so many of those who poured out to the White House gates in Washington, to the site of Ground Zero in New York and elsewhere, were students from nearby college campuses. Many of them were mere tykes when the 9/11 attacks occurred, which means that, on the one hand, they likely did not have an adequate appreciation of the magnitude of the events at the time, but that, on the other hand, they’ve had to live all their adolescent years under the cloud of fear that the 9/11 events precipitated.
Many of us who are somewhat older recall a similar environment of fear that arose in the years after the end of World War II with the rise of the Cold War.
The nuclear doctrine of madness, of “mutual and assured destruction,” hung over an entire generation like a looming, mass death sentence, and we lived with it for years.
I recall in 1962 having nightmares about seeing mushroom clouds rise in the distance.
One time that year, around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, I called into a local radio station where I worked, only to have the announcer lift the receiver so I could overhear him reading emergency instructions out loud. It turned out to be only a test, but I was paralyzed with fear in a way I will never forget.
Since 9/11, a new generation has matured living under a cloud of fear, and while the threat of the total conflagration of the globe is not its cause so much as random, unpredictable terrorist acts, the nation has not been able to relax, and in the meantime it has launched, now, three wars in the wider Middle East, all aimed at securing the vital interests of the U.S. against perceived and/or real threats.
One Seal’s bullet will not make that environment go away. Freedom has never been secured by a single bullet, even when such singular acts have played important roles in the wider process of the struggles between freedom and tyranny.
A single bullet would have stopped the horror in Nazi Germany when the plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler was most developed. Yet, on the other hand, a single bullet felled America’s most hopeful president and the leader of its civil rights struggle.
In this week’s case, a bullet has served, perhaps, to save many lives by permitting an escalation of the process of withdrawal of U.S. military forces in the region, and it has served to provide President Obama wider respect among the American electorate.
It is poignant, in the context of the sobering realities associated with the killing of bin Laden, that President Obama took a moment Tuesday to issue a proclamation marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Freedom Rides.
As he noted in the proclamation, the Freedom Rides “organized in the spring of 1961, were an interracial, non-violent effort to protest the practice of segregation. Setting out from Washington, D.C. on May 4, 1961, the Freedom Riders sought to actualize the (court) decision…which held that interstate passengers had a right to be served without discrimination, and to challenge the enforcement of local segregation laws and practices.”
They marked the beginning of what followed with the Voting Rights Act of 1964, the pouring out of college campuses then by students inspired to come into the South and help register thousands of black voters for the first time.
Despite the cloud of thermonuclear war that hung over the heads of that generation, it answered the call to advance the cause of human rights and equality with courage and resolve.
The challenge for today’s college students, justifiably excited and mobilized by the demise of bin Laden, is to replicate the model of their 1960s counterparts and to channel their joy at the death of a terrorist leader into a substantial resolve to bring social and economic justice to the vast legions of the oppressed on our planet.