Two days after U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden, a subtle geographic divide is emerging over how Americans are responding.
On the East Coast, and especially in New York and Washington, D.C., the mood was one of spontaneous celebration, combined with an upwelling of difficult and complicated memories of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Here in the Bay Area, there is also support — but it is accompanied by skepticism about the legitimacy of the war on terrorism, the truthfulness of the government’s account and the appropriateness of celebrating violence.
The differing perceptions appear to be an extension of the political schism between the Bay Area and much of the country, one that, to critics, exposes an easy naiveté, even when it comes to the demise of a man who killed thousands of Americans.
Interviews and an examination of how the news played out on social media suggest substantive differences between Bay Area residents and people in other parts of the country in how they perceived bin Laden’s death. Those differences are related to the region’s geographic remove from the 2001 terrorist attacks. They also stem from the Bay Area’s place as the center of an antiwar movement that grew increasingly suspicious of the government after a series of revelations ranging from the torture of detainees to the false account of how Arizona Cardinal football star Pat Tillman, a San Jose native, died in Afghanistan.
Joseph D. Driscoll, a 36-year veteran of the San Francisco Fire Department, said the mixed reaction to bin Laden’s death here is not surprising.
Driscoll, whose deployment to Afghanistan as a Special Forces reserve sergeant was derailed by a last-minute injury, said the Bay Area’s liberalism and diversity can lead to skepticism about the kind of military action that killed bin Laden.
“On the one hand, it’s what makes the Bay Area great — the tolerance and acceptance of many cultures and lifestyles. That’s one of the reasons I like staying in San Francisco,” Driscoll said. “At the same time, I actually know people who got blown up in the World Trade Center. And I know soldiers who were killed on their missions. I’m not talking about revenge, I’m talking about a sense of justice.”
But Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank at Stanford, said the Bay Area, in particular San Francisco, is simply out of step with the rest of the United States, even as the country is more united around an issue than perhaps any time since 9/11.
“San Francisco considers itself part of America,” Whalen said. “But it has a very different view of how America should behave itself.”
The differences between how the news was received in San Francisco and New York were evident almost immediately, as the reaction erupted on Twitter. An examination of tweets from the two cities revealed significant differences in substance and tone.
Many New Yorkers expressed unbridled joy:
“Trying to think of the right way to explain to my 6-year-old son why it's okay to be happy that someone was killed!” wrote @momsandthecity.
@laurenbrodiex wrote: “so happy osama bin laden is dead and we killed him. (so happy...idk why but im like RIDICULOUSLY excatic) bring our troops home.”
Many San Franciscans reacted somberly and skeptically. They focused less on the execution of justice for the atrocities of 9/11 than on the vast human toll from America’s war on terrorism. They expressed concern that the expressions of jubilation would serve as fuel for more violence.
“OBL's death= nausea: grotesque to celebrate any death, sad it took so long, remembering 9/11 and a sickening sense of what might be next,” wrote @brettc.
@greystudio wrote: “OBL dead. Oddly feel neither happy nor sad. Feels like the ending of a long, sad book; to which I hope there is no sequel.”
Click here for a more detailed analysis of the differences between San Franciscans' and New Yorkers' reactions on Twitter.
Twitter, of course, is a snapshot of human response. Another came Monday morning, when Michael Krasny, host of the KQED’s radio program “Forum,” held a show on the meaning of bin Laden’s death.
After 30 minutes of conversation with four guests, Krasny opened up the phone lines.