Like the rest of the nation and the world last Sunday night, May 1, I was initially mystified by the announcement that President Obama would speak late in the evening on an issue of “utmost national security.” It couldn’t be an attack or catastrophe, because something like that would already be known and reported. Speculation was rampant, but mercifully brief. More than 56 million Americans watched on live television as the President gave the first report of the killing of Osama Bin Laden by a commando raid on a house in Pakistan. Within minutes, people started gathering at the World Trade Center site, Ground Zero.
They waved American flags were and copiously poured champagne in a spontaneous explosion of triumphant celebration. Ten years ago I had stood at this very corner of Church and Vesey Streets as the towers burned and exploded. I had gone on to cover the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and have seen how they devolved into varying forms of failure and stalemate. So part of me shared the sense of relief and justice that swept through this crowd of several thousand who came out after midnight, and lingered until the dawn.
But another part of me could not help but be repelled and disgusted by such bombastic display. Not only that, but it has become so hackneyed: People sang the “Star-spangled Banner” and “America The Beautiful” — and then ran out of patriotic songs to sing because they don’t know any others — and the aggressive chant of “U.S.A! U.S.A!” suggested violent anger more than actual pride. One sharp wag retorted with ironic mockery by saying, “Ooo-sha! Ooo-sha!” rather than pronouncing each letter. This young woman was tossed about in mosh-pit style, behavior befitting a college fraternity, and it struck me how young they all were. Most of these celebrants were children, ten or eleven years old, during the 9/11 attack, and what could move them to be so demonstrative now?!?
The new Freedom Tower is finally under construction and rising by the day. Is it an appropriate backdrop for this hooligan who climbed up onto the lamppost and demonstrated his circus abilities? No matter how just, and that’s a question that has only become cloudier with each new detail revealed of an unarmed Bin Laden, of minimal resistance, etc., no matter how just killing this most wanted villain might be, celebrating that death so frivolously, after ten long years of war, smacks of poor taste and depressing ignorance.
Some people were more somber. A minute of silence was called when the crowd initially congregated, and hundreds of people stopped screaming for a long moment of sober reflection. One man said, “we need a sailor and a nurse,” evoking Alfred Eisenstaedt’s Times Square photograph of VJ Day in 1945 and expressing the palpable hope that closure might finally be at hand. But such subtler sentiments, I fear, got easily lost in the din and euphoria of nationalist excess.
All photographs made in the early morning hours of May 2, 2011, at the World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan, New York City.