It’s the craziest thing. When you first try to imagine the man who killed Osama bin Laden, your brain wants to see him in glossy Hollywood form, a dashing figure too shadowy and nimble to really get your eyes upon.
But in reality, the man who relieved bin Laden of his life was only that — a man, like so many others. Two arms, two legs, one head, 10 toes. If this celebrated fellow were to walk into the 7-Eleven while you were picking up milk and bread, chances are you wouldn’t know it. He’d look like any other man who eats right and keeps himself in shape. Maybe he’s not even handsome. Perhaps he’s average in all ways but those you cannot see: the intellect, the training, the courage.
The fellow is a Navy SEAL, which makes him special to begin with. He was selected to be part of this monumental operation and that suggests he must be extraordinary. But again, my brain keeps coming back to that one idea. The man who shot and killed the world’s most wanted man would probably blend in just fine at Walmart.
I remember, on Sept. 11, 2001, feeling that I was wandering through the world’s biggest movie set. The events unfolding in New York, D.C. and Pennsylvania were too big, too dramatic to be real. I spent most of that day with that sense of unreality. It wouldn’t have surprised me at any point to shake my head, blink my eyes and discover I had been dreaming.
It was the same thing on that Monday when information about the operation began to trickle in. The president had ordered in a team of SEALs to take out bin Laden at a mansion on what sounds like Main Street, Pakistan. They dropped in from Black Hawk helicopters, busted their way into the fortified home and went floor to floor, room to room until they found the devil they had come to meet. When Osama stood to confront his pursuers, he was shot in the center of mass and then in the head, just like your average downtown punk who pulls a .45 on a cop.
The sound of gunfire followed by the thud of flesh hitting the floor and it’s over. The man accused of blowing up New York is dead in a heap, himself no more impressive a corpse than any you will find at the morgue. Osama bin Laden, we can trust, was just another bag of bones. There were no reports that his soul fled his body in a ball of fire. There’s no indication that the body turned to dust before the SEALs’ eyes, like a vampire in the old Hammer films. Osama bin Laden was just another dead man who probably soiled himself on his way to the floor.
To me, that’s the marvel of it. Everybody involved is a mortal man. No actors, no special effects, no latex dummies. Osama bin Laden, America’s boogeyman, had to blow his nose and move his bowels just like any other human being. The soldier who fired the deadly shot may suffer allergies and premature balding.
Yet for a few moments, these two men transcended everything. For those fleeting seconds between the squeeze of a trigger and the fall of the Bad Guy, they were every bit as glorious as any figure from the mythological realm. They were Good and Evil personified. Black and white, together at last upon the stage. A pair of men with the power to change the course of humanity at last squaring off.
That, as they say in the spy movies, is all you need to know.
You could argue that the real hero here is Barack Obama, who made a decision so bold that even old Dick Cheney crawled away from his web long enough to praise it. It was President Obama who made a promise and then, in a move that is uncharacteristic of world leaders, kept it. His role in the adventure is so valiant, you find yourself proud of the man, as though he were someone you knew personally.
But tonight, Obama sleeps in the grandeur of the White House while his No. 1 SEAL sleeps on a cot. In five years, Barack Obama will still be traveling in sleek limousines and billion-dollar helicopters. I wonder where the world’s favorite gunman will be at that time. Will he continue his work with the CIA or some spook agency we mortals don’t even know of? Or will he end his tour of duty and call it good? If you’re the man who killed Osama bin Laden, after all, where do you go from there?
He might be the guy next door mowing his lawn while you mow yours. He’ll stand in long lines at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles just like the rest of us. He’ll get pulled over by police for driving 8 mph over the limit and what can he do? Tell the young cop that he’s the guy who shot bin Laden? Not a chance. He’ll have to endure a lecture from the cop about the dangers of speeding and then he’ll pay the ticket, just like you or me.
The man who killed bin Laden can never brag about it, not even if he wants to. There is a good chance his own wife will never know of his heroics. He’ll have to scoop out the litter box and take out the trash just like us.
Someday, this anonymous fellow may cut you off in traffic. You’ll lay on your horn and your middle finger will pop up like it was spring loaded. No-good bum, you’ll think, glowering at the man in the other car. I ought to kick his ass. There’s absolutely no way you could have known that the perfectly average fellow in the Nissan Altima had put his life on the line to make the world safer for people like us. There’s no way you could have known that, so you’ll just continue glowering and mouthing insults in the no-good bum’s direction.
If anyone had a right to demand, “Do you know who I am?” it’s this guy. But it’s almost a given that he never will.
So, I think about this invisible hero and the leap is natural. I start to wonder about the old fellow sweeping the floor at Walmart after hours. I wonder about the man in the bar, sitting alone and brooding at a corner table. There’s the intense woman who delivers the mail, the man with the clenched jaw at the library and a whole bunch of enigmas moving through the airport.
Which of them has changed the course of our lives through acts of monumental courage that never made CNN? For which of them do great things lie ahead?
No way to know. If you did know, it just might drive you mad.
So, I figure this. For every Man Who Shot bin Laden, there are a thousand others who do battle for us every day, in quieter ways, not apt to interrupt “The Apprentice.” And while I’ll never know who they are, I’d like every one of them to know they have my gratitude.
Even if I happen to be stepping on their feet at the airport, swiping their parking spot at the mall or flipping them off in traffic.
Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal staff writer. You can share your impressions of the Man Who Shot bin Laden at firstname.lastname@example.org.