It was my mom who first broke the news. She woke me up, standing at the foot of my bed, telling me that a plane had crashed into a building in New York. I didn’t understand why she’d woken me – accidents happen all the time, accidents of comparable magnitude, accidents of greater relevance to those sleeping through the Northwest fog. It took a full morning to understand that there’d been a purpose to such a collision. It took time to understand that the flight from Boston, rerouted through hijack and box cutter, had been guided by the followers of a guileful, monomaniacal man robed in caves half a world away. It took me time to understand this was no accident.
I was 13 years old, an eighth grader slowly filling out my own shoes. My psyche, a farrago of prepubescence and nascent teenage angst, was pivoting between childhood and adolescence. It was a time of transition. And Sept. 11 came as a near-perfect hinge. That day stands as a ragged tear, a time branded eternal, smoke and steel and eruption of awareness that the world was suddenly bigger than my Fremont district would allow.
For those of my generation – those who grew up with Snick and Pokemon and MySpace, those social-circled and unwilling to leave the comforts of home – that day has hung like a cloak over our past. We know there were times before Sept. 11, but those memories are barely, and rarely, recalled. All that we’ve known is a time of IEDs and color codes and a religion warped in definition and understanding. It seems like Sept. 11 is all we’ve ever remembered. And everything that’s come since, everything that’s come because of one man’s actions, has turned our world, our country, and our paths all the more indelibly.
My personal path from 9/11 to Kazakhstan is too convoluted to detail, but the link exists. In a certain distant, diluted sense, I’m here because of him. And that’s a despicable thought – that this man, through a skein of monstrosity and charisma, could transform not simply a seaboard, but an entire generation. That we’re all somewhere because of him.
This man’s been a bogey, a spook, for the last half-decade. He wasn’t necessarily irrelevant, but he stood nowhere near his Tora Bora heyday. Indeed, for the last few years the sanest among us had to figure him incapacitated, if not deceased some time back. His stature, ascetic and bedraggled, known to the least of us, stood out in any crowd. His kidneys had been failing for years. His craven, cave-hopping lifestyle must have been hell on his body. If the greatest army the world has ever seen, pursuant to the last, can’t find him, then the man must surely be a ghost. He must not be out there.
And yet, he was. Holed in a mansion-compound, a windowless, phone-less prison of rebar and eight-foot walls, he waited with family and friends. He shared his messages in a means that suited his asceticism – through a courier, through handheld codes that befitted the Great Game rather than the War on Terror. He sat, not idle, but no longer the wave-in-the-wind threat that the imperial Bushies could use to further curtail our freedoms.
Moreover, he remained in our minds, embedded like a parasite in our American subconscious. The knowledge that he flouted our pursuit, that those scales of Lady Justice hung slanted, was almost as tragic as the day when the first IED went off, as the day the troop deaths passed those of 9/11, as the day when Obama announced we’d be staying until 2014. We’d failed in preventing him. We’d failed in catching him.
Then, as I sat at a bus stop early Monday morning, soaking in this Soviet nation’s sun, my friend broke the news. He was dead. We’d … caught him. We’d killed him, swiftly, judiciously, with foresight and gusto, an affair as sedulous as it was secretive. It was as unexpected as the day that black-marked our childhood some ten years prior. And in an instant, a decade came crashing down. Catharsis swirled around us, a group of 20-somethings, a dozen volunteers frontlining in a Muslim-majority nation, part of an operation of education and good-will and, yes, prevention. Our bogeyman, that one who’d stalked us through our most formative years, was gone. Just like that.
I won’t celebrate his death. I’ll never celebrate a death. Such is the Christ-infused, Buddha-meted policy by which I’ve decided to live. And yet, I smile, knowing that the heinousness that this man espoused will no longer exist. Yes, his fulminations will live on in audio and YouTube, and the gestalt of terroristic tendency which he – and, in turn, we – created is by no means finished. But that this man has no more means to create new tides of fatwa, new tactics of recruitment, new lodestars for those upon whom he so imperiously preyed, is an occasion for cheer. The bastard is gone. Finally.
Mourn his death, as we mourn those he has slain. Mourn the steps he has forced us to take in pursuit. Mourn the innocents that the concurrent rage, the subsequent maelstrom, has taken. Don’t temper the catharsis you feel – such sentiment is natural, and long overdue – but, likewise, remember the bloodlust he raised within us, the patriotism that spilled into xenophobia and fracture and disrepute. The man was Odysseus with his pointed timber; we were the wild, unencumbered Cyclops, impervious in ignorance and arrogance. He got the best of us, time and again. That he survived for such length was undoubted bonus for him. But he understood, as perhaps we providential few never could, that the worst of times didn’t come in the crispness of that fall morning. Rather, it comes in the overwrought reaction, a ham-fisted swing through a swath of land that never wanted us there, a swing that took a decade to find one man still penning letters, still pinning hopes on the trustworthiness of a courier.
Tactically, it changes little. Hamid Karzai’s corruption still forces Afghan youth into the Taliban’s hand. Uzbekistan president Islam Karimov, a Stalinist reincarnate, still battens down against the Islamic uprising growing ever-stronger in his kingdom. And Anwar Al-Awlaki still spouts off in the Arabian peninsula, though I remain adamant that such a man – an American citizen, no less – should never be targeted for assassination, regardless of whatever murderous screed he proffers. Perhaps this death helps remove a bit of the gossamer reasoning of the Maghreb and Middle Eastern despots, the ones blaming al-Qaeda for the uprisings in Yemen and Libya and Bahrain. But Al-Qaeda rages on – leaderless, yes, but not yet rudderless. Our fight continues.
But no matter. For those outside the intelligence community, and especially for those who saw Sept. 11 through a child’s eye, we need this Manichean moment. We need to hold it close to us. We need to parade, and celebrate, and sweep a tear from our eye. His death brings us the first sense of closure, of release, that the last decade has allowed. His death ends that era. And here we sit, just as taken aback as we were that September long ago. Still stunned at all that a decade has brought. Still standing, ten years later, lesser, ravaged, but now reinvigorated. Standing, for the first time in the lives of my generation, without Osama bin Laden.