I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding of people's motivations for celebrating the assassination of Bin Laden.
For the past decade, our entire culture has been twisting in the wind, waiting for the other shoe to explode. We, as a people, watched our civil liberties erode, our wealth squandered, and our impotence on the world stage mocked (most viciously by us). All of this happened because one man scared the shit out of us. Oh, there were bottom-feeding opportunists waiting in the wings, but there always were those people. People who wanted to bomb the Soviets to powder, or take over Iran, or traipse across the globe like infantile giants. They were sometimes powerful, usually fringe voices, but for all the excesses of our crude views of the world, they never gained ascendancy. Then came September 11th, 2001.
The loss of life was numbing, the motivations so prosaic it boggled the mind. We're sort of used to dumb crackers who blow up abortion clinics, and we know (or knew) how to deal with them.
But here came this strange ascetic who openly spoke about world domination, who took pleasure in the misery he caused, whose power was so out of proportion with his stature that even the thief-hunters didn't really know what to do with him. He was important to the terrorist subculture, a superhero to suicide bombers. Over a period of ten years he turned a disparate group of bombers into a dedicated cult through sheer charisma. He took a brutalized Egyptian and turned him from being a marginalized failure into a criminal mastermind. He took another marginalized failure and inadvertently turned him into a 'war president'.
For seven and a half years, the CIA ran in circles, dodging Bush's absurd public statements, following up on every lead until they were spread so thin they didn't know what was happening next door, the FBI was forced to chase domestic phantoms, the military sold it's tarnished soul to private contractors, and the machinery of our dysfunctional government sputtered and failed and splintered. We lost control of our government, all because some rich boy's son decided to make us look like fools. To our shame, we obliged.
Then, in 2006, Bush essentially threw his hands in the air and gave up. We all knew he had no real interest in finding Bin Laden, at least not any more. We were trapped in two wars, our wealth was funneling to the upper 1% at an astonishing rate, and for me and my generation, we were watching our futures vanish. Absurdity piled on absurdity, each encroachment on our dignity justified with more fear, another attack in Mumbai, or London, or Indonesia. In the back of our minds we knew that terrorists were empowered by Bin Laden-- his power wasn't in planning, but in championing, in letting a teenager with a pipebomb and a hatred of dancing feel like the daring man who escaped the clutches of the infidel time and time again.
Things changed in the past six months. The mostly peaceful (but willing to use force is self-defense) uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt did what Bin Laden's coterie never managed, and all without a single bomb. It put the lie to myth Bin Laden told the Middle East, that murder was the only tool that could affect change. It put the lie to the Liberal myth of the powerlessness of third worlders in the face of American wealth and influence, too.
Bin Laden's death marks the end of an era. Reasons to stay in Afghanistan will be hard to come by, the justifications for detentions and human rights abuses thinner and thinner. Change will not come overnight--there are still thousands of angry little men with bombs, warring tribes in the hills, countries in shambles-- but we can finally straighten our spines and look to the future without the demons of the past hounding us. Our mistakes are, were, and will be many. We will misstep and fall, we will back dictators to avoid the worse unknown, we will go broke and fail our citizens. But we will do all these things of our own misguided, arrogant, painfully well-meaning reasoning, and not because of some shadow in the mountain.
That is what they are celebrating. Not the death of a man, no matter how vile.
Was there dancing in the street when Dahlmer died? Or when Oswalt was shot? No. We did not dance in the streets when Afghan civilians were killed in bombings, we did not rejoice when the town of Mai Lai was massacred. We are not that people. Attempting to claim an unbroken line of moral causality from the tears of joy in Times Square to dragging bodies through the street is superficial reasoning, more about smug moralizing than serious thought.
People celebrate because it's over. A decade long fever dream is over. We can wake up now.