The debate over our collective national reaction to Osama bin Laden’s death is still going strong in many quarters. You can find people chastising others for celebrating the death too emphatically. You can find people chastising the chastisers as knee-jerk liberal rabble rousers who are never happy. And then you can find people like Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall, who I’m not sure ever had a point to begin with but managed to get himself in trouble anyway.
As you know, one of the landmark images of that mass reaction to the news happened right at Citizens Bank Park, as the crowd broke out into joyous "U-S-A" cheers at news of the death during the Phillies game. There are some who have held up that crowd’s response as overly jingoistic. But Wednesday, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell penned an editorial that justified the crowd’s response and explained that the 40,000-plus folks on hand weren’t merely celebrating death:
I have thought about this a lot over the last few days and I have concluded, despite my initial feeling of uneasiness, that those commentators and the Rashard Mendenhalls are wrong. They are wrong because the fans at the Bank, the people who gathered at the White House, Shanksville and Ground Zero weren't cheering and chanting because bin Laden was dead. They were celebrating because justice was finally done for the 2,973 innocent people who lost their lives at bin Laden's hand on that eerily beautiful day.
Rendell also notes that the response was something of a cathartic release -- all those years of pursuing bin Laden caused many to feel as if they would end in failure, the powerlessness of knowing that 9/11 happened and that it can’t be undone -- all of those were factors in the crowd’s actions that night.
I think Rendell makes some good points, but he also misses another reason why the crowd cheered, which was the relief of knowing bin Laden couldn’t harm anyone anymore. I know that was my reaction. For the past 10 years, nary a day went by when I didn’t briefly imagine a second and even worse terrorist attack occurring here. Bin Laden’s death doesn’t prevent that sort of danger, of course, but there’s a certain comfort in knowing he’s gone regardless. And that is part of the reason I cheered when I saw the news. I felt as if life could, perhaps, finally get back to normal -- that the future could be filled with great things instead of ominous events I felt were constantly on the verge of happening.
That, to me, is another factor in all this.
And yes, there was some bloodlust in those cheers. Rendell would be disingenuous not to admit that that also played a factor. There was a sense of vengeance, a sense that the man got precisely what he deserved. But that gets mixed in with all the other stuff too. Some people may have felt justice was done. Others may have felt the joy at knowing America “beat” bin Laden at last.
There’s no clear-cut explanation for why everyone responded the way they did. But I will say this: those sort of mixed feelings were not in evidence when bin Laden and his sympathizers cheered 9/11. You want a pure celebration of death? Yeah, that was it. This is different, and to think otherwise is foolish.