Death Comes as the End

They say that revenge is a dish that's best served cold.  We've been waiting a long time for this particular dish to cool, and now that I've eaten it, I'm surprised to find that it's pretty tasteless and unsatisfying.

I knew a fair number of people who died on 9/11.  I don't want to overdramatize that--few of them were people I knew at all well, and none of them were really close.  It's just that I grew up in New York and I did a lot of consulting work in the towers.  So naturally, I knew some of the people who died.  The loss of so many lives at once was still a tragedy so terrible that I had a hard time grasping the extent of it.  I could see them so clearly in my mind--the people, the buildings, the terrible salad stand in the concourse--that it was hard to actually believe they were gone.  The mental images seemed much more vivid and believable than the smoking rubble at ground zero--even though I was by then working next to that smoking rubble, doing administrative tasks for one of the disaster recovery companies.  The rubble was too surreal, too much like a disaster movie.

For months I would walk around the site trying to grasp the enormity of what had happened.  I was waiting for that movie moment when it all comes crashing over you, and you are overwhelmed by the sudden awareness of everything that has been lost.  It never happened.  The site grew to look less like a disaster area, and more like a construction site.  I got wrapped up in the day-to-day problems of the slurry wall and the new PATH tunnel.  Eventually, I accepted that the death of so many people is too big to be comprehended, or even effectively mourned.

I was, however, filled with a terrible rage. I wanted Zacarias Moussaoui to get the electric chair, even though I'm against the death penalty.  I wanted vengeance, justice, and an end to terrorism.  I think I wanted them in that order.  I would have been exulted if Osama Bin Laden had been shot by American troops.

Ten years later, I feel none of the righteous joy that I expected.  It mostly just fills me with grief for all the deaths between then and now that should never have happened.  I'm glad we've taken a terrorist out of circulation, of course.  But maybe because I'm older, and mortality seems all too depressingly real, I find it hard to celebrate anyone's death--no, not even Bin Laden's.  The families of the victims deserved some satisfaction, of course, and a certainly hope they got it.  But these days, all of humanity seems so fragile to me, the universes of our minds so easily destroyed.  No matter how much Team Death deserves to win, I find it hard to cheer when the Grim Reaper does his victory dance in the end zone.

I would feel more celebratory if this, like Hitler's death, meant the end of a long and bloody war.  But what has it ended?  The people who died on 9/11 are still exactly as dead; they have lost 3,520 days that should have been lived, and tomorrow, they will lose day 3,521. And it's hard to assess the deterrent effect of tracking someone down and killing them ten years after they attack you: did we make an example, or a martyr?

Don't get me wrong: I do not think killing Bin Laden was morally or even tactically wrong. I just think it's profoundly unsatisfying.   We won't recover any of the things that he took from us, or even the things we took from ourselves, like the ability to travel around the country without being treated like a potential terrorist.  Destroying Osama did not unmake him, which is what I really wanted.  He may be dead, but we're still living with him.