11:23AM. My cellphone vibrates. Text message. I’m still in bed but flip it open anyways. It’s from one of my American friends here in Shanghai. Squinting at it, the words cut through the grogginess, waking me up with a jolt. I turn on my computer and visit literally every news site I know.
Pictures pop up, videos start streaming. American flags bandied about the masses. People climbing lamp poles, shouting and chanting at the top of their lungs. Cardboard signs plastered with “clever” slogans. Cigars lit, bottles drank. It was a party reminiscent of Obama’s election into the White House.
Except this time the jubilation – the celebration – was over the death of Osama bin Laden.
Everybody remembers 9/11. I was a high school sophomore in Westchester county, New York, 40 minutes outside the city. In the library, I looked up from my desk to see the TV on, people clustered around it. The TV was never on.
The screen relayed a smoking hole, too zoomed in to determine exactly what was going on. The news graphic said there was a crash at the World Trade Center. The camera zoomed out, panning to reveal the extent of the hole and where it was. The sizable crater burning high up the North Tower was the most surreal thing I’d ever seen. I’d never witnessed such a disaster.
Or so I thought.
The second plane enters the frame. Watching it live, you pray it changes course but it doesn’t and just like that a tragic accident becomes a calculated attack because it’s just too much of a terrible coincidence. Somebody did this. The shock is unrelenting. It dawns on you that nothing’s going to be the same. You could feel the course of history irrevocably change.
The day is a blur. Our school tries to proceed as normal. Nobody pays attention as people scramble, trying to contact loved ones or find out what’s going on. Everybody has a 9/11 story – they knew somebody, they knew of close calls.
My dad got home from the city that night hours after he usually does. Trains were backed up in the wake of what happened.
He looked at me, his voice unsteady, “The entire train… Everybody was crying. Everybody.”
Four years later I lived in an apartment on Greenwich Street, right by the World Trade Center. Walking past it nearly everyday, my commute was a somber affair. Adding to the unease was the 9/11 memorabilia hawked by some, the tourists taking pictures. It was never a joyous place.
To see people celebrating outside the White House was one thing, to see photos and videos of people celebrating at Ground Zero was another. People talk about 9/11 and how we should “Never Forget.” I saw a picture on the Internet of a guy dressed up as Captain America. I read a report on a girl flashing the crowd. I couldn’t help but feel there was a huge disconnect.
As much as killing Osama bin Laden is a victory, it is one in a decade measured by catastrophic losses. Loss of more life after 9/11, with thousands of wartime military and civilian casualties. Loss of standing in parts of the international community. Loss of ethics in the treatment of prisoners. Loss of individual rights in the name of counterterrorism. Loss of innocence as our generation grew up under constant threat of attack. Killing Bin Laden doesn’t atone for everything that’s happened. Killing Bin Laden certainly doesn’t end things, as world leaders warn of retaliation. There is no happy ending to this story.
Still, killing Bin Laden makes people feel better – the text message I got ended in exclamation points after all – and there’s something to be said for that. Everybody reacts differently and has the right to react the way they deem fit. Even so, I was honestly surprised by how people chose to take the news. Perhaps I shouldn’t be, as this was the culmination of so much, but the revelry seemed so steadfastly in contrast to the emotions of 9/11. Catharsis takes more outward forms than I expected, granted I believe the doctored Martin Luther King Jr. quote plastered across the Internet showed that people aspired for a response more dignified than what we are perhaps humanly capable of.
So while I can certainly see the death of Bin Laden as retribution and understand the solace it brings, it doesn’t make me want to shout “U-S-A!” or belt “God Bless America”. It doesn’t send me scurrying to don my most patriotic red, white and blue ensemble. It doesn’t make me high-five guys or pop champagne. This wasn’t a sports victory or the Fourth of July.
No, this makes me sit here, brow furrowed, ruminating on how it all came to pass.