The World Changes, We Stay Largely the Same

By Sean Carroll | May 2, 2011 12:07 pm

One thing is pretty much guaranteed, in the wake of a big-time news event: people are going to make it about themselves.

When Osama bin Laden is killed in a raid in Pakistan, politically-inclined folks in the U.S. are immediately going to wonder how this impacts the 2012 elections. Obama supporters are going to celebrate a bit more readily than they would have if the same thing had happened when George W. Bush was in office. Obama’s opponents are going to be a bit more skeptical, likewise. (From Free Republic: “We got him in spite of Obama, he’s more interested in getting our military Homosexualized than he is about any war on terror.”) Or they will use the opportunity to make some sort of political statement amidst the crowd outside the White House.

People from NYC and DC and elsewhere who lost friends and family on 9/11 might attain a bit of closure. Pakistanis will both worry about and celebrate how the operation went down. In China, some will mourn the loss of a strong anti-American presence, while others will lump bin Laden in with their own Politburo as forces of evil in the world. People who think about social media will focus on the way the news bypassed traditional channels. Wolf Blitzer will make sure a national TV audience understands that this was big enough news to drag him from home into the studio.

All that is okay. When news hits, we don’t immediately leap from receiving new information to having a fully developed and highly nuanced set of reactions. If people naturally interact with the news in terms of their pre-existing feelings and interests, let them. Some people are going to celebrate the death of a terrorist, while others will recoil at celebrating the death of anybody. It should be fine either way; let people have their moments.

I have no idea what the ramifications of the raid on bin Laden’s compound are going to be for international relations. Generally I lean toward the side that we focused on one guy because it’s useful to personalize the enemy in wartime, not because bin Laden himself was the real problem. But what do I know? It could be that he served a crucial symbolic or even operational role, and that this will really diminish the scope of al-Qaeda terrorism. Or maybe it will serve as a rallying cry, and things will get worse. I suspect that going through security at airports is going to be even more intrusive than usual for the next few months.

The social-media cognoscenti certainly do have something to talk about. In the soon-to-be-immortal words of Bill the Lizard, “I heard about 9/11 on the radio, bin Laden’s death on Twitter.” Me too. We did actually turn on the TV when it became clear that big news was coming. What a contrast; the internet was interesting and lively, while the TV pundits swerved between ponderous and clueless.

And, naturally, the attack itself was live-tweeted. Inadvertently, by an IT consultant in Pakistan named Sohaib Athar. It all started somewhat mysteriously…

But soon enough things began to escalate.

Once the news came out, the poor guy was deluged.

All he wanted was a cup of coffee.

Don’t people know that they should be looking at Facebook instead?

Remember Zhou Enlai, when asked in 1972 about the impact of the French Revolution: “It’s too soon to say.” News travels ever more quickly, but it still takes time for the ultimate result to become clear.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Humanity, Top Posts, World
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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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