What's Behind Celebrations Of Bin Laden's Death

Guest

Clarence Page, nationally syndicated columnist, Chicago Tribune

President Obama's visit to Ground Zero has been described by the White House as "somber and quiet", with no press conference planned. Yet, some Americans have gathered at the World Trade Center site to continue a celebration that started Sunday night with the news of Osama bin Laden's death.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

President Obama laid a wreath at Ground Zero in New York today to honor the men and women who died on 9/11. The White House made every effort to make this a somber, quiet visit, and while a crowd near the site of the World Trade Center waved flags and some signs read, Obama one, Osama zero, it was a very different scene last Sunday night after the president's dramatic announcement when raucous crowds of mostly young people gathered in downtown New York and outside the White House to chant USA, USA and sing the national anthem. What exactly were we cheering?

Nationally syndicated Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page says he's not celebrating death. He's celebrating justice. Do you think it's appropriate to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden or any person, even an arch enemy? 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. You can find a link to Clarence Page's column there.

And Clarence Page joins us here in Studio 3A. Yesterday, he wrote the syndicated column "Welcome to Paybackistan." Of course, that's a takeoff on "The Daily Show's" quip about it.

Mr. CLARENCE PAGE (Columnist, Chicago Tribune): Give proper credit where it's due. That's right, Neal.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And you say celebrating justice, not death. A distinction, but is that a distinction without a real difference?

Mr. PAGE: I think it's an important distinction to make. I'm disturbed by the idea of celebrating a death. It's just smacks a little too much of the lynch mob there, you know? I think it's unseemly sounding, but we all appreciate justice. We haven't had justice since 9/11. There was always - no matter whether Osama bin Laden was still an important operational figure or not, he obviously had a lot of psychic weight on us that I certainly felt every time I went through an airport checkpoint and any place where there's an enhanced security going on.

I think it was a great weight lifted off of people, so I don't begrudge them, their sentiments out there in celebrating some semblance of justice here.

One of my readers sent me an old Clarence Darrow quote, often wrongly attributed to Mark Twain, where he said I have never wished a man dead, but I have read many an obituary with great satisfaction. I think this was an obituary that many of us read with great satisfaction.

CONAN: Your piece said you were watching the celebrations outside the White House on TV with amusement, you noted, until your son challenged you.

Mr. PAGE: Yeah. My son came along to kill the buzz, saying: Are they celebrating a death? You know, kids have a way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PAGE: He's 22 now, and he's a philosophy major, philosophy and English, so I attribute it a lot of this to that. But he was not alone. I didn't have space to mention it my column, but my wife and a house guest agreed with him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PAGE: They were quite shocked and dismayed that this was going on, and I might add on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED yesterday or the day before, there was a nice piece interviewing college students, others who were disturbed by this display.

However, I stand my ground and feel that there are certain times when one has to observe a sense of justice that has been meted out. There are some who would say that Osama bin Laden didn't suffer enough considering all the suffering that he caused to others. So there's a great - everybody's got a different view of justice, but I think we must have some sense of it in order for us to carry on and have some optimism about the future.

CONAN: Yet there is an aspect of American triumphalism that can sometimes get in the way. I remember early in the invasion of Iraq, when U.S. forces cleared out an Iraqi port city, Faw, and raised the American flag. This is something the Americans have done because of the iconic scene at Iwo Jima in 1945.

Mr. PAGE: That's right.

CONAN: And so this is something that means a great deal to us. It also meant a great deal to the Iraqis who said, wait a minute, why are you raising the American flag? This is Iraq.

Mr. PAGE: That's right, and one key difference, I would say, between that display and Osama bin Laden, is Osama bin Laden attacked us on our soil and killed thousands of people, mostly civilians. This is something that anywhere on the planet, people recognize a certain sovereignty and safety, security that one should be allowed in one's own country. So it's certainly, to my - mine -more justifiably offensive to people to raise a flag in bare land when you are already, you know, claiming some kind of ownership to it, it does sense - you know, send a sense of excessive triumphalism.

CONAN: And there were scenes outside the White House, in particular -cheerleaders?

Mr. PAGE: Yes, yes. Well, you know, this is what was interesting to me, because there is a sense of victory going on here. How much does one celebrate a victory? There was, you know - so many of us had given up on every finding bin Laden. I think that this is disturbing to a lot of people. Whenever we have to give up on something, there's a sense of pessimism about the outlook for Iraq, for Afghanistan, for any place that we tried to do some good - Libya, for that matter, Egypt, across the Middle East. We needed to feel good about something.

This really reminded me of the night Barack Obama was elected, where you saw this great, surprising outpouring of people on the streets. Even Republican friends of mine were cheered by the notion that an African-American can be president now, when so many of us didn't think that was possible yet.

You know, I think this - there is an important kind of symbolism that goes on, here. So those students - some of whom were students of my wife, who teaches at George Washington University, very close to the White House - I can understand their sense of victory because, you know, this is their generation. This was their formative moment.

My son was 12 when 9/11 happened. We walked over to the Pentagon while it was still smoldering. And so he's 22 now, and while he's disturbed by the way the celebration emerged on the streets, he, too, feels a certain sense of closure, if I may use that overused word.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers on the conversation. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org.

We'll start with Ann, Ann with us from Binghamton, New York.

ANN (Caller): Hi. My name is Ann Marina(ph). I love your show.

CONAN: Thank you.

ANN (Caller): I am finding it to be, like, a difficult balancing act. I certainly have reverence for all human life and have that idea of, like, let's not celebrate a death. But also, you know, there are so many people in my area from New York City, and I think they're rightfully experiencing that elation and that closure. And I certainly don't want to remind them, you know, to have reverence for the dead, because they've experienced that reverence firsthand for, you know, 3,000 folks on the day it happened.

CONAN: It would - in the old days - particularly in Britain, if there was a military victory, you think of Trafalgar or something like that. The church bells would ring out for victory in a battle was that perceived as saving the nation. And in that sense, cheering a victory, yes, that's no problem. A victory somehow is different than an action directed against one person.

Mr. PAGE: Right. We have a situation here of asymmetrical warfare, as they say. And it's not like V-E Day or V-J Day, where you had victory over Europe or Japan. We don't know for sure yet what the full implications of Osama bin Laden's death are going to be. But I think there was a strong sense in a lot of peoples' minds that this is a benchmark. This is - was it Secretary Rumsfeld called the day the sort of a metric that we don't normally have in Iraq or Afghanistan, these new wars we've gotten ourselves into. So I think, in that sense, it made sense for people on many levels to feel a sense of victory and for a lot of people to want to celebrate it.

CONAN: Ann, thanks very much.

ANN: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Dave, Dave with us from Chillicothe in Ohio.

DAVE (Caller): Yes, sir. How are you, Neal?

CONAN: I'm good. Thanks.

DAVE: I just wanted to say that, as with anything, there is a correct way to do something and an incorrect way to do something. I think that if people are correct and not bully-ish the issue about it, it is totally okay to celebrate a victory in the death of Osama bin Laden.

CONAN: And in what way do you say that?

DAVE: Well, I think that the objective since September 11th has been to take down the enemy defined as al-Qaida and the Taliban. And it's a pretty accurate to say that he was the leader, if not one of the most important leaders of those organizations.

CONAN: Hmm. All right, Dave. Thanks very much for the call.

Mr. PAGE: I'm very happy to hear from Chillicothe, Ohio, not far from where I grew up in Southern Ohio. And I think that's the kind of down-home view that I think makes a lot of sense to a lot of Americans.

CONAN: You called it Old Testament.

Mr. PAGE: Yeah, the Old Testament view. You know, I mean, I was raised in that kind of tradition, you know, where you have Old Testament of an eye for an eye, or the New Testament of turn the other cheek. There is, as the caller said, a time for each, if I may paraphrase Ecclesiastes, that this is one of those situations where I personally feel - as I wrote, it makes me go Old Testament, that I feel like now is the time for an eye for an eye, as far as bin Laden is concerned.

CONAN: I wonder - and Dave, thanks very much. I wonder, though, presidential symbolism, after 9/11, you had George Bush in a windbreaker grabbing that megaphone and standing on the pile of rubble at Ground Zero with the firefighters and rallying the nation after a terrible defeat, after a horrible crime and humiliation for the United States.

Mr. PAGE: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: Today, you had President Obama after a victory, very somberly, quietly, respectfully laying a wreath at the same scene.

Mr. PAGE: That's right. And I think President Obama certainly has learned from President Bush' experience that premature triumphalism is the worst kind of all, that you - when you go out and even are perceived as declaring victory, perceived as saying mission accomplished, then you'd better be sure your mission is really accomplished.

They ginned up - they being Washington, Congress, the White House - ginned up a lot of actions - the Patriot Act, the invasion of Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq - off of the emotions and the need to get back at the people who caused 9/11.

If you're going to do that, then you had better make sure you got all the people that caused 9/11. We still don't know exactly where we stand with the Taliban or the - or al-Qaida. We know we've made a lot of advances, but it's still too early to talk about complete victory.

CONAN: We're talking with nationally syndicated columnist Clarence Page, who columns originate, I guess, in the Chicago Tribune and appear instantaneously in a lot of other places. He's with us here in Studio 3A to talk about a piece he wrote: "Welcome to Paybackistan."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Let's go next to Souad(ph), Souad with us from Orlando.

SOUAD (Caller): Hi. Thank you very much for taking my call. I'm an Arab and a Muslim and American. And my issue with this is when - I have no problem with the people who are directly affected by what happened in 9/11, you know, reveling and, you know, thinking or feeling that they have closure, and that's fine. But when you see people in stadiums cheering USA, it really - USA, USA, it really - it doesn't sound very healthy. It sounds - it looks silly. It almost feels like somebody, you know, like a Tarzan in the forest.

And we don't want to give to the world this image of America that, you know, like a bloodthirsty nation, that we really don't care, you know, that we just want payback. It is not healthy. It's not good.

CONAN: I think she's referring to the scene at the ballpark in Philadelphia...

Mr. PAGE: Right.

CONAN: ...the Mets and Phillies game, when the news was announced there, and that's what - that erupted there. And that sort of public celebration, I wondered, in that same line - and thank you, Souad. I wanted to read from a piece that John McWhorter wrote on the Root, called "Stop Celebration - Public Celebrations of Osama's Death."

We, too, feel a sense of closure. We can't help it. But the America we should want to be should temper and deflect any sense of joy in bin Laden's having been put to death - specifically, by refraining from public celebrations, real or virtual, of what was, after all, the killing of a human being. Are we, as Americans, people who publicly present ourselves as delighting in a death? Are we not, if so, much more akin than we have suspected to those who were cheering in the streets after 9/11?

Mr. PAGE: Yeah. You know, I was listening to - I think it was the same essay where John said - he sort of gave an excuse to those who were directly affected by 9/11, like the woman who just called. And I respect that. I would say, though, that we were all affected by 9/11. I was affected by it. I had at least one of my Tribune Company colleagues died up there in the Twin Towers, another personal friend died in the plane crash into the Pentagon.

And even if I didn't know anybody personally in there, it certainly changed the mood of our country. It affected all of us in many ways. It ended the Pax Americana that we Americans have enjoyed through the '90s. Maybe we were -obviously, the irrational exuberance of the '90s was excessive, no question about it. But 9/11 also has had a profound impact on all of us. So my question would be: Where do you draw the line? Who should be allowed to celebrate, and who not? I just say I don't begrudge anybody who feels like they honestly want to celebrate this moment.

CONAN: Here's an email from Dustin in Washington: At the announcement of Osama bin Laden's death, the celebrations that erupted across the country were dominated by tens of thousands of college students. This foreshadows the greatness of a generation. The memory of 9/11 is especially personal and painful for my generation, those who were in elementary and junior high school at the time. This is not the result of choice, but chance, a peculiar function of our age when we collided with history. For my generation, 9/11 is not a tragic point of common reference. It's the shared crucible that defined us and made so many of us into the adults that we have become.

An interesting point, and so.....

Mr. PAGE: Very much so.

CONAN: ...to Eric, Eric with us from Salem Township in Michigan.

ERIC (Caller): Hi. Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Sure.

ERIC: I think a lot of these celebrations, you know, I'm all for justice being served and whatnot, but, you know, they're barbaric and savage. And I don't know if you're familiar with Doctor Who, but you know, he defeats a lot of enemies that pose a threat to the world. And even after he kills them and defeats them, he says I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. And it's that kind of post-mortem mercy, I think, is something that's lacking in today's society.

CONAN: Maybe the Doctor Who Doctrine. All right...

Mr. PAGE: Well, you know, there's something to that, that we must temper justice with mercy and temper it with some sense of prudence. And...

CONAN: (unintelligible) phrase stated after the second - after the Civil War.

Mr. PAGE: That's quite right. And, you know, I had one reader who pointed out that even though, of course, the Old Testament says, an eye for an eye, at the Passover Seder that he celebrates, they set aside some wine in remembrance of the sacrifices of the Egyptians. And that - so you don't celebrate too much. That's the message there.

CONAN: This from Stephanie in Sacramento: At 9/11, I saw in the news thousands of Pakistanis, Afghans, et cetera dancing, singing, celebrating the destruction of the Twin Towers. Monday, I heard those same people say it was shameful that we were celebrating the death of enemy number one. Yes, I celebrate the death of bin Laden. I feel that we, as a nation, have the right to celebrate the death of this man.

And when your son challenged you, you said who else - who's other else - death do we celebrate?

Mr. PAGE: I brought up Hitler, that good, old standby, you know, the personification of evil. Bin Laden's not the same as Hitler, but you can certainly see, though, with the kind of celebration that was justifiably came out at the time of his death, or news of his death, that you can understand the kind of catharsis people felt they needed at this time.

CONAN: Nationally syndicated columnist Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune. There's a link to his latest column at npr.org. He joined us here in Studio 3A. As always, thanks very much for your time.

Mr. PAGE: Always a pleasure, Neal.

CONAN: Tomorrow, TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here with a look at electronics and privacy. How much of our personal info do our gadgets collect?

This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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