Last Sunday evening, May 1, 2011, my parents and I ordered The King’s Speech from our cable company’s on demand movies list. The war on terror was the furthest thing from our minds when about an hour in to the movie, the phone rang. My mom paused the movie to answer it. It was my sister.
“Mom! Are you watching the news?” she asked excitedly.
“No! What is going on?” Mom asked, concerned at first.
“Oh my Gosh! Bin Laden is dead?” Mom gasped in shock and amazement.
Upon hearing this proclamation, I think my heart skipped a beat, and needless to say, my dad and I did not object when Mom quickly hung up the phone and decided we could finish the movie the next day. All week, I haven’t been able to get enough news coverage of such an amazing event that I honestly thought would never happen.
My emotions upon hearing this news were nowhere near as deep as those who lost friends and loved one on September 11, or in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that followed. Even so, I could identify somehow with the spontaneous celebrations in the streets of New York City and outside the white house. Although I am not the kind of person who enjoys going to sporting events, I couldn’t help wondering what it must have been like for the audience in that Philadelphia stadium, where it was reported the crowd erupted in cheers of “U.S.A., USA.!” Monday morning, I saw a New York Times article which reported college students singing “Osama, Osama, hey hey hey, goodbye!” This song has been stuck in my head in a jubilant way all week.
Like all Americans, I remember exactly where I was when I heard about the terrorist attacks on September 11. I was a sixth grader, sitting in class about to take my first Science quiz of the year when the principle came on to the public address system.
“I have something very serious I need to tell you,” she said, and then proceeded to tell everyone who was in an elective like Gym to get to their homeroom. She would come back in a few minutes to give us the news.
I went to school in what is considered an affluent and very safe school district. Even so, I couldn’t help getting a little frightened, wondering if a bomb threat or something like that was discovered. I also couldn’t help remembering news coverage of the year before when I was introduced to the world of middle school that I would be entering next year with a report that an eighth grader had brought a gun to this school. (The gun was never used, but still a scary discovery nonetheless). Well, I was right about the safety crisis part, but I never imagined it would be on the national level, not just the school level.
“Two planes have crashed in to the World Trade Center, which is made up of two towers in New York City,” she announced solemnly when she came back. Then she told all the teachers that they could turn on the television so that we could see some news coverage. (I would find out later that the teachers had been informed of this tragedy but were told at first not to tell us students.)
I don’t remember how long we watched the television coverage, but I will never forget the collective gasp of horror when the second tower collapsed, and one of the news anchormen calling that day “a day that will go down in infamy.” Despite not being able to see the carnage on the television screen, I had never before heard such a reaction from an event, so I knew it had to be horrible.
Awhile later, the principle came back on the public address system and told the teachers to turn the televisions off and try to resume our normal class work, gently telling us students that the news coverage would just show the same footage over and over and it wasn’t good for us to watch it all day. So the teacher turned off the television and we took our regularly scheduled science quiz, and went through the rest of our classes like nothing happened, but I know students and teachers alike were merely going through the motions.
When I got home from school, my mom was at her usual post at the end of the driveway where the bus let me off. At first, she didn’t say anything, probably so that she wouldn’t alarm me in the event that I hadn’t been informed about the tragedy at school, but when I told her I had heard what happened, I will never forget her account of the event. She was just thinking about what a beautiful day it was, the sky the most perfect blue, with not a cloud to be seen, when Dad called from work to tell her to turn on the news.
I will also never forget the fact that she had made rice krispy treats. I don’t know if she had planned to make them anyway, or if it was a desperate attempt to salvage a tiny ray of sweetness and innocence out of such a tragic day, but I will always remember eating my rice krispy treat and Mom commenting that “this tragedy will effect all of us.”
At first, I didn’t understand what she meant by this comment. I even remember thinking “no, this won’t effect me. Sure it was a horrible event that for a few days will make me stunned and sad for the families who lost loved ones, but since our family didn’t lose loved ones, it wouldn’t have a lasting effect on us.” As it turned out, Mom was right. Maybe Osama Bin Laden didn’t kill any of my friends or loved ones, but I realize now that he killed a lot of my childhood innocence and forced me to grow up a little faster.
In fifth grade Social Studies, I had learned about the American Revolution and the brutal attacks by the British on the colonists. But I thought stuff like that was just history, and with all of our technological advancements and respected status in the world, nothing like that could ever happen today. All of the other lessons I learned in school on September 11, in particular the science lesson where we were learning how to measure our resting heart rate and compare it to our heart rate after exercising, seemed insignificant after learning that our country is not as safe and invincible as I always thought.
At Halloween, my dad took me trick-or-treating, but it seemed as though no one’s heart was in it, which my mom attributed to the fact that celebrating Halloween almost felt akin to celebrating evil, which didn’t feel right after September 11. I remember begging and pleading to go trick-or-treating because I was still immature and wanted to do the happy childish things I had always looked forward to, so my mom threw together a costume (I don’t even remember what it was), and had Dad take me around the neighborhood while she stayed home to greet trick-or-treaters that came to our house. But to tell the truth, I don’t think my heart was in it either. It might have been due to the fact that I was getting too old for trick-or-treating, but I think September 11 also had something to do with the fact that I never went trick-or-treating again.
Christmas that year was a sad time for our family because it was the first Christmas after my grandpa passed away, and two days before Christmas, a neighbor we were good friends with also died unexpectedly. But September 11 added to the sadness. We went through the motions of decorating the house, baking cookies and buying gifts, but again, our hearts weren’t in it. By the following Christmas, our wounds were starting to heal and we found joy in Christmas again. But it was a different joy, less about the new toys under the tree, and more about appreciating what is really important, spending time with loved ones.
Before September 11, I lived in my own little childhood bubble, not really caring about what was going on outside my world. But September 11 was a rude awakening to the fact that there is a larger world beyond my bubble, and thus I started paying much more attention to, and understanding the significance of the news regarding the larger world. I couldn’t help recalling all of these moments when I got the long-awaited news last week that Osama Bin Laden was killed, and feeling as though there was finally justice, not just for those who lost loved ones on September 11, but also for the children who were robbed of their innocence.
But the death of Osama Bin Laden also had another wonderful effect, which was the unity it seems to have brought to the whole country this week. Given all of the anger and distrust of government, especially regarding our budget deficit, it is easy to forget the incredible unity after September 11. On that day, all political differences were forgotten as everyone grieved and wanted the terrorists brought to justice. My favorite symbol of this unity was when one of my relatives forwarded my mom an e-mail of a cartoon with a silly song and tools to create a character that you could sign your name to and kick Osama Bin Laden’s butt! Even at my young age, I felt such pride and patriotism as Mom created a character for me. But as the horrible images of September 11 faded from everyone’s memory with time and the Iraq War divided the country again, I became cynical. I was even beginning to doubt if the United States was even looking for Bin Laden anymore as I hadn’t heard his name mentioned in the news lately, and I had learned some pretty unflattering things about our intelligence agencies in a public policy course I took this past semester.
Of course Americans were divided about the degree of happiness they felt upon hearing this news. If I had lived on my own, I probably would have organized a spontaneous celebration in the streets, as did many college kids, but I know many people interviewed on the news didn’t like the idea of celebrating violence, even if it was Osama Bin Laden, and of course people who lost loved ones on September 11 pointed out that the death of Osama Bin Laden won’t bring their loved ones back. But while the country was divided on whether or not it was right to celebrate in the streets, our country was once again united in the fact that I have yet to encounter a single person who isn’t proud of our troops and somewhat relieved that Bin Laden is dead.
My parents don’t think Osama Bin Laden’s death will unite the country long-term, and they are probably right. After all, we all saw how the unity and patriotism after September 11 was long forgotten by the time the United States invaded Iraq. So it probably won’t be long before this victory will be forgotten and Congress will resume fighting like junior high girls over the budget deficit. But for any historians who might stumble upon this blog in 200 years, it should be noted that at least for this week, differences were put aside, and not a person could be found who wasn’t proud to be an American.