On the fourth day after the decade-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden had come to a bloody and triumphal end, Barack Obama made the trek from Washington to the place where it all began. After being deposited by helicopter in lower Manhattan, Obama took his motorcade to a midtown firehouse that lost fifteen men on 9/11; then back downtown to the First Precinct police station house in Tribeca, where he met with officers who had been among the first responders on that awful day; then to ground zero, where he laid a wreath at the “survivor tree,” a Callery pear planted in the World Trade Center complex more than 30 years ago that somehow withstood the wreckage of the attack; then to a closed-door session with some 60 family members of Osama’s victims; and then back to Washington, three hours after he’d touched down.
Until that morning, most had expected that Obama would deliver a rousing speech at ground zero, attempting to match or at least mirror George W. Bush’s bullhorn-wielding turn on September 14, 2001. Among those with this expectation, apparently, was Bush himself, who turned down Obama’s invitation to join him in New York. “ viewed this as an Obama victory lap,” a Bushworld source told Tom DeFrank of the Daily News, whose sources in that realm are stellar. “He doesn’t feel personally snubbed and appreciates the invitation, but Obama’s claiming all the credit and a lot of other people deserve some of it … It rubbed Bush the wrong way.”
Yet there was no Obama oration in Gotham, let alone any credit-hogging or victory-lapping. Instead, the president took pains to avoid perceptions that he was doing any such thing, opting for dignified restraint over dramatic flourishes, striking a somber tone—all with the goal of creating what his press secretary, Jay Carney, called a “sense of closure” and a “cathartic moment for the American people.”
Catharsis and closure are hard to measure or verify. For some people, those emotions surely came the moment Obama first announced that bin Laden had been killed; for others, sadly, they may never come. But whatever the effects of the death of OBL on the national psyche, there can be no doubt that it marked the end of a traumatic chapter in the annals of American policy and politics. Far less clear is whether it might also mean a new beginning for Obama.
Even after successfully completing the high-risk operation to zotz bin Laden, turning the page proved slightly more difficult than Obama might have expected—as the last few paragraphs provoked a pair of controversies, one utterly unnecessary and the other probably inevitable.
The former involved the administration’s account of the strike on Osama’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, which over the course of the week underwent a significant, er, evolution. On Monday, the administration maintained that a cowardly Osama, in the midst of a heavy firefight, had been shooting from behind his wife, using her as a human shield. On Tuesday, whoops, came the admission that bin Laden was not armed and that his spouse had been no shield. On Wednesday, whoops again, the claims of a sustained firefight were retracted, too; the seals had been shot at only briefly, by one combatant, with four of the five people killed in the raid having been weaponless.
The fog of war is thick indeed—which is why the administration could and should have done itself a favor by offering its initial account of the operation with less certitude, fewer florid details, and more qualifying phrases. In America, to be sure, the errant, revised, and then re-revised narrative about what happened in the bin Laden compound matters precious little, and the fact that the target happened to be defenseless, even less so. (As Roger Ebert tweeted with perfect moral clarity, “Bin Laden was not armed when killed. Yeah, and neither was anyone in the World Trade Center.”) But in the Arab world, all of the backtracking has likely raised suspicions about the operation and U.S. credibility—needlessly so.
The second controversy, unfortunately, may have the same effect, although here the outcome was a matter of careful consideration and intense deliberation, as opposed to sloppiness. I am talking, of course, about the decision not to release an identifying photograph of a dead bin Laden—a head shot of a head shot, as it were.
The arguments on the other side were made most forcefully by the current CIA and future Pentagon chief Leon Panetta, who believed that putting out a photo was the only way to quash conspiracy theories that bin Laden is still alive. “We got bin Laden, and I think we have to reveal to the rest of the world the fact that we were able to get him and kill him,” Panetta told Brian Williams. On the other side were Hillary Clinton and Bob Gates, who feared that releasing a photo would spark a backlash where one didn’t seem to yet exist, in the process putting American troops or civilians at (greater) risk of reprisals.