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Gauging Americans’ Range of Reactions to Bin Laden’s Death

May 3, 2011 at 6:42 PM EST
American reactions to the news of Osama bin Laden's death ranged from exuberance to quiet relief. Judy Woodruff discusses U.S. reactions with the Rev. Janet Vincent, who ministered to 9/11 rescuers and families; former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky and Lauren French, editor-in-chief of George Washington University's student paper.
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JIM LEHRER: Now, how other Americans are reacting to the news of bin Laden’s death nearly a decade after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Judy Woodruff has that part of our story.  

JUDY WOODRUFF: It led some to cheer in the streets. For others, it marked a moment of quiet closure.

We explore what Osama bin Laden’s death means to people in this country with the Rev. Janet Vincent. She’s rector of St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. Nine years ago, she ministered to rescuers, workers and families of those killed at the site of the World Trade Center. Robert Pinsky, who was poet laureate of the United States from 1997 to 2000, he has written about the events of Sept. 11. And Lauren French, she’s a junior at the George Washington University and editor-in-chief of the school’s newspaper, “The Hatchet.” Her hometown is Jupiter, Fla.

And we thank you, all three, for being here.

We asked you three because you do come from different experiences.

And, Robert Pinsky, I’m going to begin with you.

What has Osama bin Laden meant to Americans? What has he represented?

ROBERT PINSKY, former U.S. poet laureate: It’s interesting to think about representations.

He was represented in what turned out to be his own propaganda films as being sort of in a rustic setting and with rocks around him. And our cartoons then put him in that cave. And he turns out to have been true to his origins as an heir in a very, very, very rich family. He was living in a compound in a city.

How we will remember him has changed drastically. I was very moved by something I read in the local paper, where somebody in Boston who lost his brother said, this is in a sense fulfilling. It’s justice. And there’s some gratification or satisfaction in the justice but it’s also renewing the wound.

And this man is always going to represent something painful, though the fact that, 10 years later, fate gave into justice changes it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Lauren French, what about for you, for your generation? You were, what, you said 11 years old? Many of your friends were close to that age. What has — what has he meant to you?

LAUREN FRENCH, George Washington University: I think Osama bin Laden was kind of my generation — especially the kids in college right now, who were anywhere from 9 to 12 when 9/11 happened — was our first introduction to what evil, in a sense, sort of was. He was our first person that you could really say was a national enemy for our generation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And — and now that he’s — that he’s been killed, is there a sense of relief? Is there — how — I mean, you know, among those you have talked to?

LAUREN FRENCH: Well, when we were reporting on the story on Monday morning, a lot of our students actually rushed down to the White House, which is interesting, because the last time the students at George Washington en masse went to the White House was for the — after Barack Obama was elected.

So, I think it was sort of a celebration of sorts for those students who really felt connected to 9/11. That event fundamentally changed our childhood, as well as our future. And I think it was a celebration of sorts for some of the students who did go.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How does that — how does that resonate, Janet Vincent, with some of the families you have been talking to? You have been on the phone the last couple of days…

REV. JANET VINCENT, St. Columba’s Episcopal Church: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … with families that you minister to in New York. What are they saying?

REV. JANET VINCENT: Well, the tone overall is one of quiet resignation, of — that this has finally happened. I don’t think there’s much exultation with any of the people I have talked to, because their loved ones are still dead.

There’s a few exceptions. And a couple of the firefighters or former firefighters that I have spoken to were still filled with rage. And I could see the fist pump as I was speaking to them. But mostly, it’s a resigned, quiet resignation this has finally happened.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How did they — I know you can’t capsulize everybody’s feelings into one, but do they see him as the embodiment of evil? I mean, that was a word that Lauren used.

REV. JANET VINCENT: Absolutely. Absolutely.

And I have to say, when I was there nine-and-a-half years ago, I felt that he was the embodiment of evil as well. You could feel it in that place. It was tangible. It was tangible as we brought the remains of loved ones out of that pile into the morgue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Robert Pinsky, to you again. Reading Americans’ reactions right now is it useful to have sort of a label for him? And now that he’s gone, is it harder to visualize the enemy? How do you — how do you see that?

ROBERT PINSKY: I will tell you a legend that Andrew Marvell uses in his poem about the assassination of Charles I, the victories in Ireland of Cromwell.

He says, when they began designing the temple at — the temple of Jupiter at the middle of Rome, they found a bloody head. And, at first, the architects ran away. And then soothsayers said, well, this means something good. The head is government. It’s going to be — come out better.

And I think these things are unpredictable. The revolution that actually has happened in the last year in the Middle East is not the revolution we associated with this man at all. And it is as hard to predict what Lauren’s generation is going to feel about him 20 years from now as it is — as it would have been to predict what happened in Egypt, and now is happening in Yemen, and even in Syria, which means bin Laden, he seems to have very little to do with that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Lauren, is there a sense of relief, of — or maybe I should — a sense of safety, that you feel your life may be easier now, may be less threatened as a result of his being gone?

LAUREN FRENCH: No, I don’t think so, especially with the students that I go to school with. We’re very politically involved. We’re reading the news. We want to — a lot of our students want to become politicians.

And I think that they understand that he isn’t — I mean, he was their leader, of course, but wiping out Osama bin Laden doesn’t mean that there are no more terrorist threats to the United States. It doesn’t mean that, all of a sudden, we’re safe and we’re going to a pre-9/11 world.

I think that they understand that this is a movement towards the sort of peace that America wants, but I don’t think college students in general believe that now it’s over.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you read that, Janet Vincent?

REV. JANET VINCENT: You know, I’m really interested in who we are as an American people. I’m interested in my own conflicted response to this. I have to say that I cannot say, as many of my colleagues have said in blogs, that they are sad over the death of this human being.

I’m not sad. I don’t want to gloat either, but I’m not sad. President Obama called it a good day for America. I don’t want to say it was a good day. A human being died. But it was an important day. We brought to closure that one piece of unfinished business that we captured and wound up killing this person.

But that having said, my reaction, my conflicted reaction, even any continuing feelings of rage, which I felt again yesterday, against Obama and al-Qaida, I know that my reaction is — doesn’t necessarily have to follow as my action. And so how do we act as Americans, how do we respond continues to concern me a great deal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And on that point, Robert Pinsky, the president said he hoped, among other things, that this would bring Americans closer together, that there would be some sense of unity for — for however long.

What about that? Is that — is that realistic?

ROBERT PINSKY: I used the word justice. It meant something to me, as an ordinary American, to hear the attorney gen. say this was lawful. I had been thinking about that.

And I compare — comparisons that occurred to me were Ku Klux Klan guys in the South who actually have been brought to justice decades later, after murdering civil rights workers. And it doesn’t make anybody cheer up exactly, but it may draw people closer together.

And Josef Mengele, who, you know, tortured children, took part in mass murder, lived out a life, as presumably bin Laden intended to do. And maybe there’s a loss in that.

So, I agree — I agree with Reverend Vincent that this isn’t something to gloat about. I’m not one of the ones ready to chant “USA.” But I think the president has some justification in feeling optimistic that, at least somewhat, it will bring us together.

I mean, we know that 9/11 itself, to a degree and temporarily, brought us together, and then politicians began to exploit it. And that’s — that’s the nature of these things.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Lauren, do you see a coming together on the part of young people in any sense who may have different political views because of this?

LAUREN FRENCH: I think we saw that Monday morning at the White House. There were George Bush signs. There were President Barack Obama signs. So, I think, there was on Monday.

But, overall, I don’t think our students definitely — and maybe that’s just because we’re in the midst of finals right now — are going to have this unity, coming together. I think that it was a Monday sort of issue. And I think that it brought them aware — or it made them aware of a lot of issues in the country and with national security, but I don’t think that we’re going to see the same national unity that we saw after Sept. 11.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I have heard some people say your generation, in a way, is the 9/11 generation. Is that a label that — how comfortable are you with that?

LAUREN FRENCH: I think — I think that is a good label for us.

We definitely came of age in a 9/11 — or a post-9/11 generation. I know I was talking to students and friends, and one of them remarked, well, yes — or, Monday died the man who stole my childhood.

So, I think that is a good label for us in a lot of ways. Our future and our present was dramatically changed because of what happened on 9/11. We grew up in two wars. So we’re — we really were growing up in a country that was at war, which was different from past….

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Janet Vincent, finally, how much relief do you think the country can feel right now, picking up on that? Is this a moment of relief? Is it time to get right back to business?

REV. JANET VINCENT: I think it’s a moment of small relief. But I think we’re also a nation engaged still in two wars and still unsure of how we approach a world that doesn’t seem to like us very much. And how do we put our best foot forward? How do we do the things that make for peace? Those are the things that weigh on my mind today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well we thank you, all three, for sharing these thoughts with us.

Robert Pinsky, joining us from Boston, Janet Vincent, Lauren French here in Washington, thank you.

REV. JANET VINCENT: Thank you, Judy.