Celebrations ensued. There was sweet abandon everywhere. People gathered in great crowds and threw parties in the streets to announce their joy. Strangers hugged, kissed and clung to other strangers. It didn't matter, this was their moment to rejoice.
The date of these events: August 14, 1945.
Why did it happen?
On that day, WWII officially ended with the surrender of Japan. Europe had surrendered months earlier, but it wasn't until terms of surrender were signed by both Germany and Japan that America celebrated an end to war.
When the news was first announced on Sunday night, young people poured out onto the streets of Washington to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden. There was no surrender -- as a matter of fact, he resisted and was shot as a result according to official accounts.
So, why a big celebration? Have we won anything yet? Is the war on terror over, or does this spark a new chapter?
The success of our Navy Seals in "Operation Geronimo" is to be lauded. Evil has been curtailed for the moment because of their expertise. But, there is no surrender of an opposition force here -- no reason to think that with the end of Osama bin Laden our problems with terror are over.
Yet, people took to the streets in jubilation. And it surprised me, left me with a sick sort of feeling in my stomach (although not nearly as intense as the sucker punch to the gut I felt on 9/11). So, I read the news reports, listened to some of the quotes from the young people during their celebrations, and opened a dialog with some very intelligent and insightful friends on both sides of the political/religious aisle. Their opinions helped me to test a theory I was developing about the reaction to Osama bin Laden's death.
What I discovered was this: America's first generation of young adults in the 21st century have never known a real war -- one that was declared by Congress against a particular aggressor nation and fought until a document of surrender was signed. (Even those in my generation of 40-somethings have only known "conflicts/police actions".) Their exposure is to a "phantom war" against hidden aggressors with elusive ring leaders. This type of "war" is more like LAPD rounding up drug dealers and gangs, but on a global level and with much more at stake. Al-Qaeda had a central ring leader who fanned the flames of jihad, but from there the waters get murky as to who is next in line, who will emerge the new voice of jihad. It could be any of the terror cell leaders, it could be a radical Imam, who knows. That's why we depend on our intelligence community to do their jobs, efficiently and capably each and every day. God bless their tireless efforts.
America's young people could only react to the death of a man, not the end of a war. They rejoiced over a battle victory because they've never experienced the horrors and oppression of a war that has made them truly sacrifice their physical needs or pleasures. If the sacrifices touched the way they lived, if the horrors were ever present before them, they would know that this is only the beginning of the conflict, not the end. It would be much different if we had an actual country or entity we were engaging that caused us to make sacrifices similar to WWII. But, we are engaging a phantom -- they are everywhere and there is no peace treaty to sign even though our troops are in countries that currently promote and harbor the operatives of terror. We are not at war with Islam, or Afghanistan, or the people of Iraq -- just those "phantoms" who operate in those areas and individuals who support their efforts. That's a rather ambiguous mission and not necessarily easily understood as "war". Yet, we are fighting for freedom nonetheless; there is no doubt of that in my mind.
And with this understanding comes an unsettling anxiety -- with the only satisfaction being the death of an individuals who rise to lead the ranks of this widely diffuse terror organization, our youth will become more and more desensitized to celebrating the death of a human being. As we identify the new "most wanted" person, the idea of rejoicing at the death of the next terror leader will increase -- encouraging a hunger for blood.
I think about JPII and how he popularized the term "culture of death". Isn't the idea that life has no intrinsic value or dignity a huge problem in our society? Aren't we currently battling this notion that has pervaded our culture through laws, decisions in our courts and relativism in our hearts and minds? Doesn't the seeming hyper-reaction to the death of Osama bin Laden make you wonder about how the "culture of death" may be at the core of the collective response? It made me wonder -- simply because while killing Osama bin Laden was a significant triumph, it isn't an end to anything. It is not going to put a stop to terrorist assaults. In a New York Times poll conducted shortly after the announcement of bin Laden's death, they found that "euphoria was tempered by a sense of foreboding: more than six in 10 Americans said that killing Bin Laden was likely to increase the threat of terrorism against the United States in the short term. A large majority also said that the Qaeda leader’s death did not make them feel any safer. Just 16 percent said they personally felt more safe now."
Osama bin Laden was the "face of terror" to the US, in particular; his death signifies justice to the American public. But, we must be careful not to jump the gun and party in the streets too soon. The thirst for vengeance by the blood of single individual cannot become our form of justice. Our next generation cannot seek an "eye for an eye". This situation requires us to be proactive; superior national security and intelligence collection is critical to staying in front of the enemies of freedom in the hopes of dismantling their efforts. It is almost certain that one equal or greater than bin Laden is hidden amongst the ranks. There is no freedom in continuously living under the fear of attack -- the last 10 years of being relatively terror-free in this country speaks volumes about the exemplary work of our armed forces and intelligence communities.
Unfortunately the "phantom war" continues to rage, and the hearts and minds of those who wish to harm us still require enlightening, to put it mildly. One thing we might consider doing in the midst of all this is to show a greater respect for all life from conception to natural death. Then, perhaps, a bitter-sweetness coupled with an innate sense of regret will accompany any victorious operation requiring extreme measures. And when the mission of ending terrorism is complete, we can savor with great abandon, parades and celebrations the much anticipated cessation of aggression. That will be this generation's V-T (Victory over Terror) Day -- it hasn't happen yet, but may it be quick in coming.
God bless the United States of America, her leadership, those who protect her, and her people.