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Osama bin Laden's death galvanizes Sunday night television

Mary McNamara
Los Angeles Times (MCT)
Revelers hold American flags near the White House in Washington, D.C., Monday morning on May 2, 2011, after the news of Osama bin Laden's death. (Chuck Myers/MCT)

LOS ANGELES — For the first, and possibly last, time in history, Sunday night owned television. The medium that captured, in horrifying and world-changing detail, the fall of the World Trade Center during the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks also brought the news, almost 10 years later, that the mastermind of those attacks, Osama bin Laden, was dead, killed by U.S. troops in Pakistan.

As networks learned that President Obama would be making an official statement to that effect, originally scheduled for 10:30 p.m. EDT, regular programming was suspended as anchors and reporters spoke, at times with great emotion, of the surprising and momentous news — in a particularly poignant note, CBS' Lara Logan returned to work for the first time since being sexually assaulted by a mob during the protests in Egypt.

The president began speaking by 11:35, announcing with no preamble that "I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaida and a terrorist who's responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women and children."

He then went on to conjure the images of 9/11, reminding Americans of the unity they felt even in their sorrow and the resolve that has stayed firm even as that unity "frayed." It was a deceptively simple speech, offering a brief chronology of the events while quietly but firmly sending out a carefully constructed symphony of messages: that although the government of Pakistan aided our efforts, this was an American mission and one that had been planned for months; that the capture or death of Bin Laden had been a top priority of Obama's presidency; that it did not signal the end of the war on terror or an excuse for reprisals of any sort at home. In making this point, Obama reached not just across the aisle but also back in time to include former President George W. Bush in the achievement.

"I must also reaffirm that the United States is not — and never will be — at war with Islam," Obama said. "I've made clear, just as President Bush did shortly after 9/11, that our war is not against Islam."

For the next hour, networks remained locked on news, as hastily gathered analysts parsed the president's words but mostly reiterated the historical importance of the day — "I think you have to reach back to the fall of the Berlin Wall for something of this magnitude," said David Gergen — with a collective air of almost dumbfounded excitement, which only grew as celebrating crowds gathered in front of the White House and at Ground Zero.

Yes, many anchors reminded us, Bin Laden's death may spark increased activity among al Qaida. And no, we don't have all the details of the attack. But after weeks of British wedding thumbsuckers, after the devastating death toll in the tornado-plagued South and the utter absurdity of the birth certificate controversy, after the chronically dispiriting grind of three wars and a still-faltering economy, here was a story, a big and shining story, rising unexpectedly on a Sunday night, giving the president of the United States ground to say things like "We will be relentless in defense of our citizens" and "America can do whatever we set our minds to ... not just because of wealth and power but because of who we are."

Monday morning hasn't looked so good in long time.

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