In Ruth Marcus’s garden. (The Washington Post)
Ruth Marcus
Columnist May 3, 2011

The morning after we got Osama bin Laden, I woke up with a powerful urge to plant my garden.

The plural pronoun “we” reflects a deliberate choice. As a journalist, I am temperamentally unsuited to thinking of myself as the member of any team. Or, it may be, the causality works in the opposite direction: I was drawn to journalism because of an inborn sense of outsider-ness. Either way, that emotion ended on Sept. 11. Al-Qaeda attacked us.

Ruth Marcus is a columnist and editorial writer for The Post, specializing in American politics and domestic policy. View Archive

And when we got him, my immediate reaction was one of grim exuberance.

Grim because of the scars he left behind — on grieving families, on the altered Manhattan landscape, on the national psyche. My younger daughter, 4 at the time, asked me in the scary days afterward what the news used to be about before it was only about terrorism. We lay in her bed and listened to the fighter jets circling over Washington.

The innocence of childhood never lasts, but bin Laden, and this is the least of his sins, took our children’s prematurely. They know a capricious world of terrorist attacks, anthrax in envelopes and snipers shooting random strangers. It turns out, thankfully, that the news is no longer only about terrorism, but they will always remember: It could be, again, in an instant. They live in a world of “not if, but when.”

Hence my exuberance. You can question the tastefulness of fist-pumping celebrations that seem more appropriate to clinching a soccer championship than nabbing a terrorist. But for young people who grew up with the omnipresent specter of terrorism, I cannot begrudge them the vuvuzela. There was some high-fiving in my house.

The world “is a better place because of the death of Osama bin Laden,” President Obama said Monday. This is a statement that is simultaneously undeniable and arresting. The president did not say the world was better off because bin Laden was taken out of operation, but because of his death. White House officials said they would have been perfectly happy to take bin Laden alive if that opportunity had presented itself, but they also appeared perfectly happy that the trigger was pulled.

Me, too. I am glad that Osama is dead — and I am somewhat sheepish about experiencing this joy.

This is an age-old ambivalence. It is embedded in human nature and the inescapable tension between the natural impulse for revenge and the laudable desire to rise above it.

Jews just finished celebrating Passover, retelling the story of how God parted the Red Sea to let the people of Israel pass and then caused the waters to close again, drowning the pursuing Egyptian army. The Talmud teaches that when the angels began to sing in praise, God silenced them, saying, “My handiwork is drowning in the sea, and you want to sing?”

Yet Moses and the Israelites broke into song after the crossing, praising God — and apparently drawing no rebuke — for casting Pharaoh’s chariots and captains into the sea. Humans are not angels. And even angels, it seems, succumb to the desire for vengeance.

Which brings me to the garden. I am an inconstant gardener. I tend to buy more than I plant, and plant more than I tend. My eyes are bigger than my compost pile. But thinking of bin Laden compelled a drive to the nursery to revel in the beauty that exists alongside evil — God’s better handiwork, if you will.

Every year, I go for a different palette. Last year, I tried a vibrant, showy mix of orange marigolds and royal purple petunias on the front porch. This year seemed to call for something more muted and soothing — whites and lavenders and a sprinkling of yellow. I piled my cart with lavender and white impatiens for the front beds, frothy alyssum for the walkway, a potful of optimistic-looking gerbera daisies for the steps.

Some of last year’s perennials managed to survive my negligence. What I thought was a weed turns out to be glorious purple salvia, surrounded by the clusters of white candytuft I had forgotten were there.

Today, I’ll put in the new arrivals. A proud yellow poppy will be my silent reminder of Afghanistan. And a showy white peony, with its wedding dress layers of petals, will stand testament to the fact that a world capable of producing an evil like bin Laden also contains instances of such improbable splendor.

ruthmarcus@washpost.com