LYNDEN, Washington — Seattle is a city that cares deeply about music but you wouldn’t know it from listening to the radio. The I-5 corridor from roughly Everett to Portland is a sonic desert on the FM dial.
Your humble scribe long ago despaired of finding a good rock station and decided to settle instead for country music. The call letters shift constantly, yet there always seem to be a few channels with plenty of wattage to reach down deep into the state.
The Dodge Stratus’s radio was tuned to one of those honky tonk stations a little over a week ago now, as I traveled from my Canadian border town to visit friends and relatives in greater Portlandia. Static was beginning to creep in, maybe 30 miles South of Olympia, when “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” started spinning.
“Courtesy” is the post-9/11 Toby Keith hit song famous for the line “We’ll put a boot in your ass. It’s the American way.” The first few times I heard this, it was rousing good fun. (Dixie Chick Natalie Maines predictably hated it, claiming the song “makes country music sound ignorant.”) Keith sang that “this nation I love is fallen under attack.” A “mighty sucker-punch” had caught America unawares, but just you wait, folks.
Keith sang about the initial U.S. air strikes on Afghanistan (“We lit up your world like the Fourth of July.”). He predicted that now that “Uncle Sam put your name at the top of his list,” Osama Bin Laden would meet a violent end “courtesy of the red, white and blue.”
Keith’s rough country rhymes assured patriotic Americans that “Justice will be served and the battle will rage. This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage.” And Bin Laden and company would in the end be very “sorry you messed with the U.S. of A.”
As I said, a rousing, rollicking good time. And for a few minutes, alone in my car, I relived the sense of collective and defiant hope that America showed in the months after 9/11. But then, before the song was even over, I felt it again: The Weight.
You’ve felt it too, I’m guessing, my fellow Americans. The Weight is that sense of collective helplessness in the face of the horrors of history. It had pressed down more and over the last near-decade, making America’s many misfortunes that much harder to bear.
One just war of retribution turned into a broader and ill-defined conflict with no end in sight. The economy went to hell and was not getting much better. And almost 10 years after 9/11, the would-be prophet who had bloodied the nose of the Great Satan continued to escape our grasp — almost as if Allah had willed his continued survival.
The foreign policy mandarins in the Bush administration wanted to get Bin Laden, of course. Who wouldn’t? But they ultimately didn’t think he mattered all that much. Many conservative thinkers followed their lead, with less than stellar results.
They argued that Bin Laden was dead, or effectively dead anyway. He was disappeared to a cave somewhere, where he could die anonymously. As long as he wasn’t funding more terrorism or actively plotting against us anymore, what did it really matter?
We can understand why some folks pressed this line, but it mattered a great deal and this became more apparent as the years stretched out. Osama’s continued survival became a national insult, a sign of the world’s only superpower’s powerlessness. How could it be that the U.S. government could not get this one man who had done Americans so much harm?
That’s what I wondered yet again on that very somber Saturday. The very next day, over dinner, the Applebee’s waitress secured a whopping tip by breaking the news to us that Bin Laden was finally toast. Even better, he had died at the heroic hands of U.S. forces.
With her words — words that echoed those of President Obama’s terse but stirring address — an old burden evaporated from our shoulders. For the first time in nearly a decade, history didn’t feel so bloody crushing. We knew that we could all breathe a little easier going forward because Bin Laden could breathe not at all.