I was in bed when my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number, but I picked up thinking that good news never comes at night. It took me a moment to recognize the voice. Instead of hello, he said “We got him.”
I already knew. I’d been watching the news anchors speculate as they waited for Obama’s press conference before I’d gone to bed. The voice on the other end of my phone was Chris, a fellow worker from New York’s Ground Zero of so many years before. Despite the family that such tragedies fuse together, he and I had never been particularly close. But he wanted to make sure I knew. He said that. “We got him. I’m calling everyone. We did it. We finally got him. I just wanted to make sure you knew.” There was triumph in his voice – if not outright joy, then giddy, satisfied resolve. Celebration. The air of long-awaited justice, finally served. Cold but still delicious.
I thanked him for calling. I wasn’t sure what else to say as I pulled myself away from sleep. I wasn’t sure what I was feeling. As I hung up, my husband yawned “what was that about?”
“That was Chris,” I replied, “part of my team at Ground Zero. He wanted me to know that Osama Bin Laden was dead. It’s been confirmed.”
“Really? He called just to tell you?”
My husband is from Montreal, and wasn’t a part of those years in my life. He understood, of course, why people would be relieved that Osama Bin Laden was dead. It was the immediacy and the enthusiasm that surprised him.
It was the completion of a promise. A promise our country had waited a decade to see fulfilled. We’d killed so many to get there. We built an empire of anger and color-coded fear. A web of self-restriction so we could sleep again at night. In those first moments after I hung up the phone, I searched for that happiness I’d heard in Chris’s voice. I closed my eyes and took myself back to those days, as I have done so many times. Into the smoke that smelled of death and burning steel. Into the fear that turns your city to glass, so easily broken. Through the chants of “USA! USA!” that punctuated the president’s visit and every attempt to pull us collectively from our despair and into our rage. I tried to dive back into that pain that threatens to break you from within. The discovery of every body part. The hands holding on to each other but attached to nothing else. The hero’s escort of each recovered firefighter back up the West Side Highway. We stood at attention for every single one. We lost count of the funerals. I searched through those memories for the closure, the relief I knew I should be feeling.
But somehow Osama’s death still offered me nothing.
My mind wandered instead to the years since. The grainy broadcasts of rockets fired off into darkness, searching there for our justice. Each explosion, we were assured, brought us one step closer. It was the war on our terror. But my mind always got stuck in the death. Maybe because I knew what explosions looked like, after. And I never quite figured out how specializing in the export of Ground Zeros would fix the hole in our hearts.
I wandered further, imagining the celebrations that had likely taken place while our own dead still burned. Those strange and terrifying far away monsters that the news had warned us about, who danced at the thought of our dead. They must be monsters, because what creature other than monsters could celebrate the death of those we loved? What creature indeed.
I opened my eyes and stared at the ceiling, searching for an answer to the question that was rising from that place in my stomach that knows about terrible things. But I knew the answer before the question had even taken its shape. When does it end? It clearly doesn’t end with the death of Osama. And certainly no one expected that with his death, ten years of xenophobia, military action and the Patriot Act would simply evaporate. That life would reset itself as if some balance had suddenly been restored.
It doesn’t. It doesn’t end. That’s what I realized that night. It doesn’t end because it can’t end. Because every death we celebrate is a martyr for someone else to avenge. In the same way that we’ve sought so much blood for those who died in our towers. If pain and loss give a person the right to kill, there will simply be no one left. And if inflicting pain and death on others is something to be celebrated, as we clearly did through every network broadcast that night, who had we become? As Chris had said that night, “we did it.” But what had we done?
And here we are, years later, and there will still never be enough blood to avenge those already lost, and we will never drop enough bombs to ensure the peace we claim to seek. It cannot be done. The people we are attacking are people. And in my own very limited, personal way, I know what Ground Zeros do to people. They do not bring peace, or encourage submission or silence. When we were attacked, our rage demanded blood. Why would it be any different for anyone else? If there are 20, or even 2000 ‘terrorists’ we are attempting to kill, I assure you that with every drone strike there will be many, many more.
Don’t misunderstand this – I am not a pacifist. My struggle is not with the necessity of violence as means of protection, but rather as a marker of achievement. It’s the end game I don’t see.
Dr. King wrote, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
For me, the night Osama Bin Laden died was not an ending. It was the first night I truly started to understand what Dr. King meant and with that came the realization of just how radical that statement was. Not just because we’re still willing to believe, however reluctantly, that peace sits waiting for us on the far side of anyone’s patriotic retribution, but because it means that the love he speaks of cannot be passive if it is going to drive anything out of anywhere. And if we are part of that love, then neither can we be passive.
The love he’s talking about is not timid or frivolous or weak. His life, and every life he touched, demonstrates that the love he spoke of was deeply powerful – and unrelenting and strategic. Always learning, organizing and growing. Always open. Not silent. Larger with every new ally. Always working. Always reevaluating the playing field – the systems of power. Always aware of the connection we have to each other. And the responsibility that connection demands.
That connection does not know skin or border. It is stronger than the divisions we manufacture with our fear. It laughs at every new line we draw in the sand. It runs through all of us. All. of. us. It isn’t ours to award. We only get to choose whether or not we will accept our responsibility to each other. Whether we will stand in that light or that darkness.
It is also a hard road forward. Accepting that responsibility means that regardless of where someone is standing, we recognize the humanity we all share. It means that we can honor loss and grief (ours and theirs) – but we cannot honor the hatred that is a product of that pain. And we cannot use pain to justify death. This path is much harder than simply continuing to believe that our violence is righteous violence. But in so honoring each other, there is both hope and power. There is, at the very least, a space for the possibility of understanding. A crack in the wall.
That is how love drives out hate. By working and organizing and connecting at every moment to be unrelentingly unified. Not in our beliefs. Not in our identities. Only in the recognition of our equal value. There are no roads to resolution that do not start from that place. It is possible.
I just wanted to make sure you knew.