Ground Zero and the Killing of Osama Bin Laden

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In the weeks since Osama Bin Laden was killed by an American commando raid in Pakistan, the fallout continues to spread. Relations with Pakistan are strained: Congress debates whether or not to cut back aid money, while Pakistan’s anger and humiliation led to a firefight with NATO helicopters on the Afghan border. Domestically, President Obama’s call for national unity lasted only as long as his speech. Immediately, partisan rancor and a renewed debate over torture filled the airwaves and the chattersphere.

On the night of May 1, the nation and rest the world were initially mystified by the announcement that the President 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. Within minutes of the announcement of Bin Laden’s killing, people started gathering at the White House, in Times Square, and at the World Trade Center site, Ground Zero.

They waved American flags and copiously poured champagne in an explosion of triumphant celebration. Enthusiastic young men climbed lampposts. A few dressed as superheroes or in other costumes. Empty cans and bottles of beer and other alcoholic drinks piled up on the ground. The police, in a rare display of restraint, did little other than watch from a discreet distance at the sidelines.

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. There was a palpable sense of relief and justice that swept through this crowd of several thousand who came out after midnight, and lingered until the dawn.

But their bombastic display was striking, though perhaps not surprising. 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 rode on the shoulders of her friend, screaming at the top of her lungs, behavior befitting a college fraternity. They were all very young. 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. It is appropriate to ask if “Ground Zero” — sacred ground, memorial ground — was the right place for such a spontaneous gathering. 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.

But the larger issues raised that night point to a deeper discourse exposing the fault lines in American society. Voices of restraint, respect, of just war, of civil society — voices articulated not only by traditional liberals but also by both Presidents Bush and Obama — are increasingly under attack from a darker strain of nativism and paranoia that has become legitimate and respectable. The “culture wars” have always been with us. Their corrosive impact was on open display at the World Trade Center.

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 hope that closure might finally be at hand. But such subtler sentiments, I fear, got too easily lost in the din and euphoria of nationalist excess.

–Alan Chin
New York
May 18, 2011


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