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
  • Chris Lindsay

    “Sohaib Athar” … so what are the odds that name will be the answer to a future trivia question?

  • spyder

    Well golly, all it took was–nine and a half years, 6018 US troop killed, 42,517 troops wounded, a couple of million civilian deaths, a whole host of our rights and liberties stripped from us–to accomplish this. I wonder how many more troops will be killed or wounded before we realize this wasn’t about people at all.

  • Alpha Omega

    Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda and the medieval Islamic memosphere are irrelevant. The “war on terror” was always a sideshow, a brief chapter that is now closing. The Rise of the Machines has begun and the front line is Pakistan, but it is spreading. The medievalist holdouts will be crushed beneath the boots of autonomous military robots; their networks will be rooted out and their memes systematically annihilated by the global surveillance systems. Muslim militants were the first test for the global control architecture and they lost (in fact they never had a chance). Next comes cyberwar and the AI arms race for global supremacy between advanced nations and networks. Now the real war begins…

  • Cosmonut

    @Alpha Omega:
    So Judgement Day is coming soon ? But wasn’t it supposed to have happened in 1997 with Skynet taking over ?

  • Mike


    It’s a little dispiriting to see the shallow of comments you get on a serious post about serious actions with serious consequences for our future. I have to think that serious people are digesting this, pondering the complexities and consequences.

    For my part, I think that this murder’s death is a clearly a net plus; but many years ago (many more than I’d like to admit) I was into all things Chinese and I often used to repeat the same Zhou Enlai quote (sadly for the most part, to brag how I took a long-term, mature, view). Still, the quote is good, because, time will, in the long run, actually tell the tale.

    For those among us who view this act as no different than any other, you can believe that our position is the same as the terrorists and basically symmetrical only by expunging morality from your analysis: seeing all political objectives as being legitimate, all rival value systems as matters of taste, treating murderers and their victims with evenhanded sympathy. You have to look at tolerance and its opposite, intolerance, and pretend that they are two versions of the same thing. You have to pretend that the richness and diversity and creativity of our civilisation are playing the same role in our lives as empty repetition, oppression, and pitiless enforcement of a monoculture play in theirs.

  • Jim

    @Cosmonut: No, they averted that in the second movie.

  • Suetonius

    I trust that the opponents of capital punishment will be staging loud protests outside the White House? You know, the way they got all upset when the Israelis offed Eichmann?

  • sievemaria lucianus

    I am sure it was very exciting for the Seals who carried out this operation – I would like to be a hero knowing – Violence begets more violence – and pretty soon everyone and their sister will want to join in the *fun* Too bad they could not put a sleeping net around the house and take everyone alive.

    @Aplha Omega: The natural occupation of man is really husbandry.

  • Cosmonut

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

    Spot on about that one.

    Here, in India, the main feeling is vindication.
    The standing joke here about bin Laden was that America was wasting its time looking in Afghanistan, they should just search Musharraf’s house instead.

    Its really a bit eerie that this came so close to the truth.

  • Gary M

    CosmicVariance is a political blog, once again?

    A global-warming hot spot.

    All that’s Left is more annoying than anything.

  • Pingback: Daily Dough #48 « smoke me a kipper; I'll be back for breakfast()

  • chris

    Well one thing is clear: in 1945 they gave Goering and consorts a fair trial. in 2011 a marine just shoots the guy in the head.

    way to go, civilization! hail the Nobel peace price winner.

  • Colin

    Hey Chris (12), Can you go be self-superior somewhere else?

    As has been noted in the press, every attempt to bring Bin Laden in alive was made by the Seal team, but they were not able to do so. Your tired “civilization is in decline” stick is not so clear cut. After all, Chris, think back to a few years before Goering… did they give John Dillinger a fair trial? That was a much more clear cut case of straight out assassination.

  • Alan

    I doubt that Osama dead or Osama alive will make much difference in 10 years time. Search engine statistics showed that huge numbers of teenagers asked “Who is Osama bin Laden” after the news broke. These young people have always lived in a world in which millions of air travellers undergo insulting and ineffective searches, a world in which the West is embroiled in a land war in Asia and they will continue to live in this way for years to come. Their children will hear the name Osama bin Laden in a boring history class and forget it soon after.

  • ChuckWhite

    Alan (#14), you got an ironic laugh from me. I’d love to berate you for being cynical … but I can’t. Sometimes the level of (un)awareness in our society is disheartening.

    But, on the brighter side, this event may (just “may”) change the dynamic of terrorism. I’m convinced that this is not a “war”, rather, should be an international police action. I’m convinced that this approach would be less intrusive on civilians, military, international relations … and just as effective.

  • Ben

    After hundred thousands died in the war on terror, they got the one who was responsible for the first three thousand. Yeah, what an achievement.

  • Georg

    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.

    Generally this is an American manner, everything is personalized, all
    politics (internal and abroad) not only at wartime.

    This and an inclination on either black or white, good or evil,
    is smiled at in Europe as a sign for America beeing a “Young”
    nation, to say it as polite as possible.

    The idea that “Obama” killed him (or ordered it, not Bush)
    is another instant of this thinking. Such orders can be a necessity,
    if this depends on who is president, US is in big danger.

  • Rob

    I second the thought that it is a bit dispiriting to see the number of shallow comments on a blog that portends to delve into the deeper meaning of things.

    There is a thing in this country that is called the rule of law. It is what holds our society together. Ten years ago an organization led by a man named Osama Bin Laden murdered over 3000 of our citizens in cold blood. Our country sought to bring that man to justice. You can disagree with the decisions that were made between now and then but there is no doubt that bringing to justice the person responsible for those deaths was the right thing. And yes – we really don’t need to have a fair trial for someone who was admittedly overjoyed by the results of his actions on that unforgettable September day.

    We still have time to steer the consequences. A debate on how is always welcome. But questioning who we should bring to justice and who we might not depending on the longer term affects goes against the basic foundation of our country.

  • Mike

    “This and an inclination on either . . . good or evil, is smiled at in Europe as a sign for America being a “Young” nation, to say it as polite as possible”

    Yes, perhaps this can sometimes be a shortcoming among Americans. However, seeing all political objectives as being legitimate, all rival value systems as matters of taste, and treating murderers and their victims with evenhanded sympathy is too often a sign of Europe being “old” — to say it as polite as possible.

  • Ben

    @Mike: Only because criminals aren’t treated inhumanly as in the US (harsh sentences, in particular the death penalty and life without parole for minors; overcrowded prisons) doesn’t mean that they receive the same sympathy as their victims. Unfortunately, I have to agree that Europe isn’t very consistent about its own values. Otherwise, it would speak out more loudly against violations of human rights by the US (the Iraq war, torture, Guantanamo, extraordinary rendition, …).

  • Brian137

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

    My TV showed a scene from earlier in the evening of jubilant fans at the Phillies – Mets baseball game yelling “USA, USA” when they became aware of the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death. The scoreboard in the back indicated that at that time, the game had been tied 1-1 in the ninth inning. My most consuming thought? “I wonder who won the game.”

  • chris

    “we really don’t need to have a fair trial for someone who was admittedly overjoyed by the results of his actions”

    right, right. and while at it, why not kill Assange as fox news already wanted to?

    kill the ugly and the world will become beautiful.

  • Billy Budd

    Osama Bin Laden should have been taken alive. When a leader is captured – He should be the *guests* of those of his same rank , invited to gamble till he has lost all his money and set free!

    The rule of law can be a pretty dicey path to justice. Right / Wrong – who can say ?

    Assange has very little money but as humans go he ranks very high.

  • Kris

    Spare us your air of European self-importance, Georg. Not 70 years ago Europe was still a den of stick-wielding savages that sparked not one but two World Wars. The social democracies that have sprouted in the post-WWII era have thrived only because the Western European governments have abdicated the protection of the Continent to the US, and huddled under the American nuclear umbrella. It’ll be interesting to see if the EU can right their economic ship before Spain’s economic crisis drags down the whole grand social democratic experiment. The political situation would be scary — a recipe for a hard swing to the right — if Europe weren’t so weak, as evidenced by their inability to manage a relatively small military situation, Libya, right in their own backyard.

  • Ben

    Spare us your air of American arrogance, Kris. Eighty years earlier, the US was still a country of slave holders and it required a brutal civil war for abolition. Countries change. And after waging an illegal war in Iraq that killed a hundred thousand or more innocents, a bit more humbleness would do your country well.

  • Karl


    Come on now — Georg started the smug name-calling :)

    What you say is right, of course, neither America nor Europe should be smug and self-important — no one should. And I agree that Iraq was a huge mistake — it was not a war we should have ever fought. Afghanistan and the battle against Al Qaeda and other similar terrorists is, in my opinion, a different story.

    As someone wrote in 2001:

    “It is not true that the recent attacks on the US were motivated by a state of mind similar to that which is currently motivating the Western response. The Western stance — and even Western mistakes . . . are driven fundamentally by respect for human beings, human choices and human life. Western values are life-affirming and life-seeking. The murderers worship death. There is no symmetry between life and death.”

    This is not meant to excuse our mistakes, and we should not be afraid of or immune to criticism — we can learn to make fewer mistakes (like Europe learned from two world wars in the last century; like the US learned through a civil war). Nevertheless, mistakes will continue to be made and problems will continue to arise. And there will still be violence and war for some time to come.

    What can we do about that? The above quoted author on that occasion also said:

    “People wring their hands and say that there must be “better ways of finding solutions” than warfare. Of course there are. We have already found them. The nations and people of the West use them all the time. They are openness, tolerance, reason, respect for human rights — the fundamental institutions of our civilisation. But no way of finding solutions is so effective that it can work when it isn’t being used. And when a violent group defines itself by its comprehensive rejection of all the values on which problem-solving and the peaceful resolution of disputes depend, and embarks instead on a campaign of unlimited murder and destruction, it is morally wrong as well as factually inaccurate to represent this as a case of our needing “better ways of finding solutions”. ”

    I agree with this statement and personally was happy to see the end of Osama bin Laden.

  • Ben

    Please excuse, Karl, but ‘mistake’ is an ugly euphemism for creating a mess in which a hundred thousand men, women and children die. This is something I always hear when I talk with Americans about the Iraq war: Yeah, it was a mistake. No, it was a horrendous crime and the US should admit that.

  • Kris


    Those 70+80 years make for a very long time, relatively speaking, in the lifetime of a “young” country, after all. I don’t think the statement that the Western European democracies have thrived post-WWII under American protection, nor the assertion that European-style social democracy is threatened by the current financial crisis are particularly arrogant. I think they are statements of uncomfortable fact.

    On the other hand, you are 100% correct that the war in Iraq is an unmitigated disaster. Let’s hope it is the apex of post-Cold War American foreign policy arrogance. My original comment was perhaps regrettably worded. However, I bristle at lectures about European civility, and particularly at this idea that it roots from some ancient and deeply-ingrained “old” cultural attribute, when the reality is that the bulk of European history is 2500+ years of carnage. I admire the social democracies that have arisen in Europe since WWII, and wonder at what can be accomplished when states don’t spend $1 trillion/year on the military industrial complex. But just,as you suggest, America would often be well-served to display more humbleness, sometimes Europeans need to express a bit more humility and consider why it hasn’t been necessary for their countries to spend that money on defense.

  • ChuckWhite

    @ Ben, Kris and Karl — boys, boys, really can we calm down?

    I’m American, my wife is Dutch. We often have visitors from Holland, visitors of every political stripe. Guess what — Europe appears to be moving in exactly the same direction as the U.S.

    Yes, sometimes I need to remind our European visitors that, just because we’re Americans, doesn’t mean we’re stupid. But, let me leave you with a comment I made to a Dutch brother-in-law back in 2000.

    He asked how I felt about the newly formed European Union. My reply was, “I hope it succeeds beyond your wildest dreams.” That shocked him and he asked, “I’m surprised you’d say that. Doesn’t the Union threaten the power of the U.S.?” My answer … “If the Union succeeds, the rest of the world has someone else to hate as much as they hate US.” That seems to be what’s happening. America needs to step away from the table a bit, let natural forces run their course, and tend to it’s own business for a change.

    History is just that. “History”. Sure there are lessons to be learned from it, but, as humans, we have a record of NOT learning those lessons. We haven’t learned squat from our history. Maybe we need to learn to make better decisions NOW, in the present.

  • Ahmed

    Great points Sean. That Zhou Enlai was one smart man.

    Another point one begins to notice, when big news strikes, is how completely worthless most of the newspaper columns, media, and their “analysts” are in general. I know this is common knowledge, but it really hits you hard how many of these folks can just be replaced by machines that make words. Before the news hits, they all have some deeply insightful thing to say about something, they all are busy making words to fill the various media. Then the news hits the wire – they are stormed into silence. For a few seconds. Then all of a sudden, they have forgotten whatever great wisdom they were about to impart on the world, all their useless columns of commentary goes down the drain, all their miserably obvious “analysis” is forsaken, and every single medium is suddenly talking about the news that just arrived. And continues to do so, for days.

    What worth is the information they wanted to write before (and that they write now), if they are always prisoners of sudden events far away, that have the power to change their course so drastically?

    If it is worth being written, it should always be written, no matter what happens.

    My thanks to yourself and the other physicists maintaining this wonderful website.


  • Moro

    Winston Churchill famously said that “one can always count on Americans
    to do the right thing, after they’ve exhausted all the other possibilities.”

    It seems after ten years of War On Terror they just run out of possibilities.

  • Gary M

    Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

    Tap, tap. End of discussion.

    You may think that it’s tea time, but it’s still the Savannah out here.

  • Ben

    @Kris: I know very well that terrible things have happened in Europe. But that doesn’t change the unfortunate fact that nowadays the US is by far the worst violator of human rights among western countries.
    @ChuckWhite: This is another thing I always hear from Americans: The world doesn’t like us because we are so powerful. No, the world (or at least that’s the reason for many of its citizen) don’t particularly like the US because your government wages illegal wars, tortures and violates human rights in various other ways. Get real.
    @both of you: There is no ‘Europe’ for the matter of this discussion. Europe consists of several countries which differ in various respects. The German economy, for example, is booming and they nevertheless have a generous social safety net. And I don’t think that politics in Germany is drifting to the right.

  • Willi

    They (= US Govt.) insulted our intelligence by saying that burial at sea was a Muslim custom —from a Religion which grew in a desert. They disposed of the body & then told us the DNA ‘proved’ bin Laden was dead. They revised the facts of the killing on an almost daily basis. It would seem they created The Official bin Laden Conspiracy Theory themselves to save the trouble of garnering unrelated facts & positing a false causality. Why be so dumb? Maybe it’s just because of a CIA disinformation operation. Or maybe it’s because they believe John Wayne Diplomacy is the way to go. What’s scary, is that whatever happened, we’re in the hands of a Government that seems damn stoopid (yes, with two ‘O’s’). If they’d watched even one episode of CSI, they would have realised the necessity to preserve a chain of custody for collecting Forensic Evidence. But ‘No!’, go for the Adrenaline Rush & ignore the fact that we violated Sovereignty in an unstable country with Nuclear weapons. I think I’m going to vote for Charlie Sheen as President —most sensible guy out there when compared to what’s running….

  • moor

    “from a Religion which grew in a desert.”

    Sure. A desert in a PENINSULA. Peninsulas tend to have sea shores.

    Regarding DNA and the facts, not to worry. Al Qaeda has already confirmed the news.


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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] .


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