Random thoughts from the day after bin Laden died

It was 9:15. I was tired. I’d been reading, then I went to my computer to check baseball scores. I saw that the president had called a press conference for 9:30 CST, with no indication what it was about. 9:30 PM on a Sunday night isn’t when you usually call press conferences, and there’s usually some indication what the subject will be. I was curious enough to click around to see what was going on, but when I didn’t find anything right away, I went to bed.

This morning I woke up, went straight to the Kansas City Star’s baseball page to get an account of last night’s Royals-Twins game, and out of the corner of my eye, spotted the last headline I ever expected to read: “The Raid that Killed bin Laden.” What? Beneath it was a similar headline. I clicked, read the first two sentences to make sure I was reading the right thing, then raced into the bedroom, where my wife was getting our two sons dressed.

“They got bin Laden,” I said. And she did the same double-take that I did, and made me say it again.

My oldest son is 3. He didn’t understand what was going on. I’ve seen multiple crises in my lifetime, but this one festered nearly 10 years, more than 1/4 of my lifetime, and more than half of my adult life. There are adults who have dealt with this for more than half their lives. I’ve been reading accounts written by student journalists who would have been 8-10 years old on 9 September 2001. To them this is probably an even bigger deal.

I’m old enough that I remember the end of the Cold War–I know what those old black and yellow “Fallout Shelter” signs mean, and I’m pretty sure that in the first couple of years of my grade school education, we participated in not only tornado drills, but also nuclear drills. But there was a difference between the Cold War and this. Neither side really wanted war. Both sides did provocative things over the years, but it never quite led to war. I remember when the Eastern Bloc fell, and I remember where I was when the Soviet Coup occurred, which quickly hastened the end of the Soviet Union and the Cold War.

I also remember the Challenger. And I remember watching clips of the footage being played in the Soviet Union, and watching Soviet mouths drop in horror as they realized what was happening. They weren’t partying in the streets, chanting “death to the USA” or anything like that. The death of seven U.S. astronauts visibly bothered them.

When Hurricane Katrina hit, al Qaeda gave Katrina an honorary military rank and celebrated.

The contrast was never lost on me.

Samantha Smith was a grade ahead of me in school. She was the second grader with the all-American name who wrote to Yuri Andropov in 1982 asking why the Soviets wanted to conquer the world. His response was simple enough for any grade schooler to understand: To have peace.

Maybe they believed that was the only way they could guarantee peace. But if there was another way, the door seemed to be open. Indeed, it happened within the decade. The resulting peace with Russia is a tense peace, but it’s peace.

After the turn of the 21st century, we faced a foe intent on destroying not just the U.S. government, but everything about our way of life. With no room for negotiation.

As a result, it affected most of us in deep and personal ways. Flying is completely different in May 2011 than it was in May 2001. When I made a business trip in 2000, the flight to and from New Orleans was a pleasant experience. I used to go out of my way to fly. I love airplanes. My dad and grandfather were pilots. As a kid, my best friend and I built countless numbers of model airplanes and pretended we were Air Force pilots at recess. Dad and I would drive to airports, park, and watch airliners land. For fun.

I still love airplanes. But today I go out of my way to avoid getting inside one. Last year, when business took me to Columbus, Ohio, I drove the whole way. There are no direct flights from St. Louis to Columbus–another casualty of 9/11 is that St. Louis is no longer a hub for any airline, and thus it has a limited number of direct flights now. My best option was to fly to Philadelphia, take a layover, then fly to Columbus. Ten years ago I would have jumped at that–a free trip to Philly! Today I’d rather spend four extra hours driving than two hours waiting to get through airport security.

That’s hardly the only thing that’s changed. Gas cost a little over a dollar a gallon before those attacks. I distinctly remember a few months after the attack, being distraught when it cost me $17 to fill up my car. This weekend, a comparable fill-up cost me $46. That $29 difference hurts, especially when I have to do it twice a week. A lot of people have bigger gas tanks than I do, so they’re hurting even more.

The act of opening a bank account or securing a loan once was dead simple. A pay stub, a driver’s license, perhaps a Social Security card, and a signature was all it took. Today in my daily life, it seems like I have to produce a birth certificate at least once a year for one reason or another. I’ve even had people demand to see my most recent tax return. So far I’ve drawn the line at that–nobody besides my accountant and the IRS needs that. But I don’t think I could get a home mortgage today without presenting both a birth certificate and a 2010 tax return.

This changed way of life happened over the course of 10 years, and it’s not all going to immediately change because one man is dead. Oil prices dropped a few dollars per barrel on the news, but the terror alert actually increased. There’s no shortage of people who want vengeance. Unlike their counterparts from a decade ago, they aren’t as well funded or trained. The U.S. intelligence community has taken it on the chin for not preventing the shoe and underwear bombers, but the counter argument to that is that al Qaeda has gone from being able to hijack four airplanes and crash three of the four in coordinated attacks to deploying guys who struggle with lighting their clothing on fire.

In a short period of time, they went from being the first adversary to attack U.S. soil in nearly two centuries to being a nuisance. An expensive nuisance, which was part of their plan. And they’ve committed countless atrocities in the years since, but nothing on the same scale. They can’t do the training required for such a thing anymore because we probably would find them.

Still, the economy is staggering. I still say we should have had a recession sometime in the 2000-2001 timeframe. Instead we had a minor boom, funded mostly with borrowed money, followed by a much worse recession. One of al Qaeda’s goals was to bankrupt the United States. They haven’t managed to do that, but they’ve punched the economy’s lights out. Meanwhile, the government’s debt and deficit problems worsened, and the death of one man isn’t going to fix that either.

This is a step on the road to recovery. If I knew how many more steps there were, and what those steps were, I’d be doing more important things than I do right now.

Like 11 Sep 2001, the Internet was dog slow today. We’ve learned a few things since then, so it’s not crippled the way it was on the day that made bin Laden the most hated household name since Hitler, but it was a strange sense of deja vu. Of course I remembered driving to work that morning and hearing about the attack. I was in the parking lot when I heard that the first of the two towers fell. The second was still standing when I reported to work.

This is a similarly crazy news day. News outlets have everybody covering this. My former editing instructor, Bob Sullivan, has been working at MSNBC as a consumer reporter for years. He shared a byline with a health reporter, covering this. I imagine most of the major news outlets have anyone available covering this.

But the major news sites held up. In 2001, you couldn’t get through to the major news pages. My coworkers and I turned to British and Australian news sites, because they were in English and we could read them, and they were less busy than their U.S. counterparts. Throughout the day we traded addresses of overseas news outlets that were reporting on what happened in New York. Today, the major sites were slower than usual, but they held up. The same things that made web sites able to handle Slashdot and Digg in its prime presumably made them able to handle news like this.

There were some headlines with some bad mistakes in them. Accidentally substituting “Obama” for “Osama” was a common one. “Why’d this mistake happen, Mr. Journalist?” was a common question I fielded today. “Is someone going to lose their job for this? Or at least get chewed out?” The answer, of course, was that someone got in a hurry, and they fixed the problem. Indeed, usually when they hit F5 to reload the page, the problem was fixed. People want news faster and faster, and the best way to make careless mistakes is to get in a hurry.

As the day wore on, I saw more and more headlines referring to the deceased as “bin Laden.” When you’re prone to a problem, you write around it.

And if you ever needed proof that Internet trolls will say absolutely anything to rile people up, comment #2 on the Kansas City Star’s account of bin Laden’s death read, “How do we know he was really a terrorist, and not just a criminal?”

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