Osama bin Laden is dead, and we've all gotten to see secret home videos of him watching himself on video. President Obama has done a very tasteful victory lap. Pakistan is still counting the billions of dollars in aid they've received from American taxpayers, although much more warily now, as it seems they almost certainly had to know exactly where bin Laden was stashed and failed to clue us in. Maybe all that aid money was too much of a temptation for them to risk losing it, or maybe they just dig what bin Laden was peddling, but there are furrowed brows all over the government offices in Islamabad as they wait for the next shoe to drop.
It was a tremendous week in these United States. A segment of the population reveled in unabashed frenzy over the death of bin Laden. A segment of the population celebrated in more restrained fashion. A segment of the population called into question the cold-blooded manner of the terrorist mastermind's dispatch, and, of course, a segment of the population simply refused to believe it had happened at all. Through it all, however, was a sense that the terrible drift we have been experiencing as a nation came to a sudden stop. Something had been done, and it felt like we were once again in control of events, instead of events being in control of us. The manner in which we arrived at the moment may have been unworthy, as some have suggested, but the facts of aftermath remain for all to see.
Fine and good. Let's take that feeling and run with it, for by God and sonny Jesus, we still have so much to do right here in America.
If you need a microcosm of all that ails us as a nation, I give you the great state of Alabama as a prime example. Much of the city of Tuscaloosa stands today in utter ruin after a devastating series of tornadoes rampaged through the town. Hundreds are dead, and thousands more have lost everything. If you have wondered at the cruelty of those tornadoes, at how they seemed to single out poor people for special and devastating attention, contain your surprise. The reason so many poor people were affected is because there are a great many poor people in the state. In this, Alabama is like much of the country, as the ranks of the poor swell by the day despite record income levels for a fortunate few.
Travel a few hundred miles south of Tuscaloosa, and you will come to Mobile, Gulf Shores, and some of the most beautiful beaches to be found on the North American continent. If you decide to take a walk on some of the nicer, more secluded ones, however, be sure to wear some shoes:
Tarballs linger on Alabama's uninhabited beaches, clustering around the edges of sand dunes and sticking to seashells and driftwood. In mid-April, thousands of small tarballs were visible in heavy equipment tracks left near the water's edge by large sand-sifting machines employed by BP for its “deep cleaning” program.
Lisa Hansen, a member of the Dauphin Island Town Council, visited the uninhabited portion of the island in April and was upset by the large number of tarballs present. Hansen said she believed BP could have done a better job before the March 1 deadline.
“I've got a 5 gallon bucket of them in my garage. The tarballs ranged from pea-size to a really big hamburger,” Hansen said. “BP has not done what they said they would do. It's still out there on the beach and it is being moved by the waves. That means it can get into Mobile Bay and the Mississippi Sound, into our estuaries and all those places we don't want it to get to.”
Ed Overton, an oil chemist at Louisiana State University who was paid by federal officials to advise the government, predicted the week the spill began that Alabama and Mississippi would be dealing with tarballs for years to come. He said last week that the most harmful components of the oil had likely dissipated.
“I have gotten a few reports of oil buried on beaches. Someone told me you could find it on Petit Bois Island by digging in places where the sand felt strange when you walked on it,” Overton said. “They'll be cleaning tarballs off those beaches for a long time.”
Alabama is not alone in its particular plight. Poverty is spreading like a grassfire across the country, and with it assaults on education, bargaining rights, and the social contract that has safeguarded our society for generations. They are not alone in dealing with the aftermath of calamity; New Orleans can tell them all about it, and the Mississippi River is preparing to flex its muscles in a way not seen since time out of mind. They are not alone in dealing with environmental spoilage, or the corporate greed and indifference that spawns it.
But if you're looking for a place where all the rotten eggs are sitting in one basket, Alabama will do. Their story is the story of the nation entire, and we all have skin in this game. A great deal of skin.
Osama bin Laden is dead, and it is a nine-days wonder across the land. So be it. But let us not forget that we have awesome challenges before us right here in America. It feels as if we have regained a sense of national purpose after the events of last week. Let us not squander it by focusing too much of our attention beyond the horizon. We have plenty to deal with right here at home.