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To surf American airwaves, to read American comments on the Internet by the thousands, to walk American streets on the day after Osama bin Laden’s astonishing demise meant you’d almost certainly hear some variation of a single telling word: “closure.”
As in ending. As in end of story — at least, the primary story arc of Osama bin Laden, which for most Americans began in the eastern United States on Sept. 11, 2001, and ended in Pakistan in the early moments of May 2, 2011, in one of the most dramatic undoings imaginable.
While Americans reveled in the demise of global terrorism’s most public face, the prevailing mood was unsurprising for the culture that produced Hollywood: After so many years of uncertainty and mass aggravation over no resolution at all, here, finally, was some kind of coherent ending.
Listen to Republican Rep. Peter King, one of many whose satisfaction in the hours after bin Laden’s death focused on resolution and wrap-up. Of the 9/11 victims’ families, he said this: “Now they can finally have some sense of closure and some sense of justice.”
Or Mike Low of Batesville, Ark., whose flight attendant daughter died aboard American Airlines Flight 11: “It certainly brings an ending to a major quest for all of us.”
Or Lisa Ramaci, celebrating early Monday in New York’s streets, where the champagne-and-goodbye-chants atmosphere at times resembled that of a major pro sports victory: “We had this 10 years of frustration just building and building, wanting this guy dead, and now he is.”
Surely one man’s eradication cannot offset survivors’ years of pain. But the American hunger for definitive Hollywood endings is boundless — to the point where we grow deeply irritated if something seems too open-ended. The quick-cut, sound-bite culture so frustrating to politicians and other leaders produces an appetite for resolution that’s hard to satisfy.
Add to that the enduring, horrific echoes of 9/11 and two protracted wars that have no discernible endpoints in sight, and you have a populace primed to applaud the end of a major chapter, even if it isn’t unfettered victory.
Part of it is the nature of U.S. warfare in recent decades. Americans today are as likely to fight wars against amorphous enemies as they are nation-states. Because of that, conflicts tend to lack distinct endings or formal surrenders like a Yorktown or an Appomattox — events that say, “Hey, the war’s over.”
There was no Treaty of Versailles with Saddam Hussein, and certainly no one in America expects ever to have a V-E Day or V-J Day with al-Qaida. In modern U.S.-backed warfare, the big, solemn, identifiable ending is virtually obsolete. So a major milestone like bin Laden’s death is, for the United States, a cause for buoyancy in a frustratingly unresolved conflict.
That’s how Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer cast it. “The war on terror is not over,” he said Monday on MSNBC, “but maybe this was the Saratoga or the Gettysburg where things turned.”
But there’s something else at play, too. Bin Laden himself was the closest thing the modern world had to a James Bond-style supervillain — someone who, to hundreds of millions of Westerners, was truly, monochromatically dastardly.
Owen Gleiberman, writing on Entertainment Weekly’s website, identified it immediately in a piece called “Say Goodnight to the Bad Guy.”
“That perception of 9/11 as big-screen-action-disaster-gone-real, widespread though it was, seemed rather indefensible at the time because to say it, or even to think it, risked trivializing the devastation,” Gleiberman wrote.
“Yet 9/11, there’s almost no denying it, did live in our minds like a giant motion picture,” he wrote, “and part of what made it so wasn’t simply the vastness, the sheer terrifying spectacle, of the tragedy. It was that behind it lay a villain of nearly mythological proportion.”
And now we get to the heart of the matter. Could it be that, for a worried and weary nation, such a soul-wrenching event as 9/11 required an appropriately cataclysmic resolution for the man who masterminded it? Would a bomb from the air — or, worse, a revelation years later that he had died — have been as satisfying?
Would a less sharply defined bin Laden death have allowed for the jubilant summoning of American resoluteness that was being bandied about so freely Monday from the White House to the streets of New York City and Washington?
When you take in the words that people in America used Monday — “emotionally held hostage,” “finally,” “a symbol,” “an important milestone” — you realize what the ending of bin Laden means right here, right now: It gives Americans something to pin their feelings on, to carry with us when we say, “What has all this meant?”
It means, for now, that one of the key demands of a story — that something actually happens that means something — has just unfolded before our eyes. The fact that the manner of bin Laden’s death might have fit perfectly into a pre-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger movie is not incidental.
For the moment, Americans have our resolution — something to pin our feelings on. We have all-important closure, even though — in the real, messier, non-cinematic world — the country of big endings still must wake up tomorrow and fight another day.
Ted Anthony writes about American culture for The Associated Press.
Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press