I was in Shanghai, China when I first heard the news about Osama bin Laden’s death by US forces in Pakistan. It was an early Monday afternoon in China, 12 hours ahead of the early morning back at home in the US.
By 3 p.m. China time, I had returned to the hotel and tuned into CNN. The 15-minute news cycle repeated everything we were allowed to know at that point, including the siege, the location, the contents of his pockets and the apparent burial at sea, interspersed with photos of people celebrating the death of bin Laden at Ground Zero back at home, a mere two miles from my home on the other side of the Hudson River.
Rob Lowe was there.
I got bored fast, and turned to my next favorite CNN hobby: looking for spelling and grammar mistakes during breaking news.
And then of course, my mind raced to the 14 and a half hour flight I was supposed to take back to New Jersey the following day. I checked in on the State Department Web site, which had by then issued a warning to all Americans traveling abroad. Be alert, report suspicious behavior, etc, etc. It didn’t feel like an auspicious day to travel on a nonstop flight from Asia to North America, but I assured myself that any retaliatory attacks would most likely not be aimed at a plane load of mostly Chinese tourists visiting America.
But just in case anything bad did happen, the next day at the airport, I grabbed two extra cans of Budweiser beer from the airport snack bar and stuffed them in my bag.
A few hours later, we were cruising effortlessly at 35,000 feet over the Yellow Sea, with no access to CNN, breaking news or State Department warnings. I felt safer, I still hadn’t drank either of the Budweisers, and I decided to watch the Quentin Tarantino film “Inglourious Basterds.”
The film depicts a group of Jewish-born US soldiers stalking and killing German soldiers throughout France during World War 2, ultimately leading to the fictional demise of Adolf Hitler, who is shot in a hail of gunfire, then blown up at a Paris cinema. And when Hitler is killed, the soldier that does the killing is so enraptured in the death of Hitler that he shoots the face clear off the dead body.
Cinematically, the good guys win. And thematically, the ultimate sign of evil in the earlier part of the twentieth century is brought down by good. Watching the death of a monster unfold on my personal view screen on the plane, I felt myself completely removed from remorse. Hitler was the enemy, he murdered countless innocent people, and he was getting what he deserved.
And then I thought of the early morning party goers at Ground Zero the night before, celebrating the death of my generation’s ultimate sign of evil, Osama bin Laden. And I could understand why they were celebrating the death of an enemy.
But my next thoughts were a little more alarming, and completely detached from the movie, Osama bin Laden or the guy flossing his teeth next to me on the plane.
As a culture, we seem to have a need to have a person or movement that signifies the evils of man. Hitler was that symbol in “Inglourious Basterds,” and Osama bin Laden was that symbol to my generation.
But who would be next, what evil would they come to symbolize, and how quickly would a biopic on the life and death of bin Laden arrive at our doors from Hollywood?