Monday, May 2, 2011

Ding Dong, The Witch is Dead

My son and I travelled to New York City this past weekend with the Magothy River Middle School orchestra, band, and chorus. I've made the school trip twice before with my daughter. Last year we saw Phantom of the Opera and Mary Poppins and paid a visit to the Statue of Liberty and a recording studio. This year, I was thrilled to learn that we would be seeing Wicked on Broadway and also get a tour of Radio City Music Hall, Top of the Rock (the Rockefeller Center observation deck on the 67th floor), and the 9/11 Memorial. A trip to New York is always exciting, and I was happy to chaperone.

I read the book Wicked by Gregory Maguire several years ago, and thoroughly enjoyed the twist on L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, one of my favorite childhood books and movies. Wicked is a dark and clever prequel to the Oz tale from the perspective of the Witch of the West. The retelling details the making of a villain - the complexity of the underlying person and political, personal, and social events that shape both her and her image. It also highlights how the legend and reputation of this person are molded by those who would demonize her for her contrary views. In the show, the audience and her closest friends on stage appreciate the person she truly is, but the rest of the Land of Oz simply know her as the detestable, evil Wicked Witch of the West.

When her death and that of her sister from the East come at the hands of a young girl from Kansas (first in a tornado-lofted house and then with a bucket of water), the Ozians gather to celebrate and sing. In the Wizard of Oz, the Munchkins sing "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead" when the first sister is killed and in Wicked, the song is, "No One Mourns the Wicked" at the demise of the westerly witch. They know and care nothing of the green woman in the funny black hat or the nasty lady in the sparkling slippers who terrorizes them from atop a flying broomstick. They are simply glad that their long nightmare has come to an end.

So after seeing Wicked on Saturday and then hearing the news on Sunday night that Osama bin Laden, our own Wicked Witch of the Middle East, had at long last been killed, the first thing that popped into my head was, "Ding Dong the Witch is Dead." Unlike the character in the musical, bin Laden was truly a very bad guy responsible for thousands of deaths, and his death is incredibly welcome news and long overdue. This charismatic leader of al Qaeda who has been ruthlessly terrorizing our land for decades was dead at the hands of our fine Navy Seals, and as people around the country learned the news of his demise, much like the people of Oz, they flocked to the gates of the White House in DC and to Ground Zero in New York to cheer in celebration and rejoice in song. It was a spontaneous outpouring of joy that our arch nemesis was at last no more.

It's a testament to how raw the pain of 9/11 remains in our national soul that almost 10 years later, the death of the man behind it could trigger such spontaneous and intense emotion. I experienced the staying power of that pain myself this weekend as Henry and I viewed the 9/11 history on display near the footprint of the World Trade Center and the new Freedom Tower that is rising from the site. As I viewed the outlines of the old towers, I was suddenly struck out of nowhere by a heavy wave of grief that brought tears to my eyes for an instant. It's still right there under the surface even for someone who did not suffer the direct loss of a loved one. All of us Americans who witnessed it are permanently imprinted with the images and wounded by the horror of that terrible day.

Freedom Tower Rising

Plans for World Trade Center Site

Somehow though, last night I did not have exactly the same initial reaction to the news as the chanting revelers, though I don't begrudge them their festive expression. Perhaps because the events of 9/11 were especially fresh in my mind after visiting Ground Zero on Saturday, I was personally overcome anew by the news with an overwhelming sense of sadness that this man ever came into existence - that this villain was created. Events and powerful people unwittingly helped shape and empower the vicious criminal that he would become. I guess for me, my feelings of rejoicing and relief were tempered with a need for reflection. While we are right to celebrate, we also should strive to understand what fed into the creation of this terrible villain and keep it in mind as we navigate the events of the Arab Spring that continue to unfold.

Will the death of this man put an end to al Qaeda and snuff out terrorism? Of course not. None of us is naive enough to believe that. Osama bin Laden's power and influence have been greatly reduced in recent years, and being on the run (well, holed up in a mansion - way to inspire your followers, Osama), he was not the al Qaeda mover and shaker that he was prior to 9/11. In addition, the events that have unfolded in the region during the Arab Spring have repudiated everything that bin Laden espoused - hatred of Western ideas and forms of government. The protests in the squares and streets of Egypt, Yemen, Lybia, Syria, Tunisia, etc. have been fueled by young Arab people demanding democracy and freedom from oppression in the name of any ideology. They have no use for al Qaeda and its leaders. Bin Laden is just one more corrupt Arab leader responsible for the deaths of thousands to go down with the Arab awakening.

Still, even though he may not have wielded the power on the ground that he once did, it is important to our national psyche that this villain has been snuffed out, melted, deposited in the ocean depths to dissolve in water. The word closure is overused, but that's exactly what the death of this man provides for our country. Closure is that point following upset or tragedy where loose ends are tied up and it becomes more possible to release the unproductive, incapacitating grief and start to move forward with a healthier outlook. I am hopeful that between the stunning uprisings of the Arab Spring and the justice finally exacted on Osama bin Laden that perhaps we have a shot at a new beginning in our relationship with the Middle East - a chance to start fresh and maybe recapture the spirit of unity that in our shock, anger and despair, we squandered following 9/11.

Everyone enjoy this national day of celebration and breathe a sign of relief. It truly does feel like a 10-year nightmare has come to a close. We are right to rejoice, but thoughtful work remains to deter the forces of hate and oppression. Maybe at last we can really get down to it. Ding Dong the Witch is Dead! Now we need to expose those worthless, showboating Wizards posing as leaders behind the curtain...

From Wicked, some of the lyrics to No One Mourns the Wicked:

Good news! She's dead!
The Witch of the West is dead!
The wickedest witch there ever was
The enemy of all of us here in Oz
Is Dead!
Good news!
Good news!

Let us be glad
Let us be grateful
Let us rejoicify that goodness could subdue
The wicked workings of you-know-who
Isn't it nice to know
That good will conquer evil?

No one mourns the Wicked
No one cries "They won't return!"
No one lays a lily on their grave
The good man scorns the Wicked!
Through their lives, our children learn
What we miss, when we misbehave...

And Goodness knows
The Wicked's lives are lonely
Goodness knows
The Wicked die alone
It just shows when you're Wicked
You're left only
On your own

Yes, Goodness knows
The Wicked's lives are lonely
Goodness knows
The Wicked cry alone
Nothing grows for the Wicked
They reap only
What they've sown

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