Four years ago today, Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. military forces.
The mood in New York City on the evening of May 2, 2011, as footage from the news networks will attest, was festive. The official word that Osama Bin Laden was dead came at just before midnight eastern time and when it did, the reactions were immediate. In my apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side, I could hear people shouting and cheering from the frats and student housing and from the bars on Broadway where many people had sat in silence waiting for Obama to speak.
I was at home when the news came streaming.
I called my father when the rumors began bubbling up and told him to turn on CNN. I thought the president's words were well-chosen. Not particularly inspiring, but politically appropriate. I considered the collective anxiety of the last decade and as more news began to trickle in about people heading downtown to Times Square and Ground Zero, I headed out for a drink and texted a friend — a former Marine — about going down there.
So we went down to Ground Zero.
There were a few other people on the train at 1:20 a.m., including a couple of firefighters from the Bronx who came all the way down. Most people were drunk or drinking. There were plenty of flags, as the pictures will tell. There was cheering, singing, hugs between strangers. It felt strangely like a sporting event. It was easy to get caught up in the rush of it as people passed bottles around and waved flags.
It was collective catharsis: people feeling the same sense of relief, perhaps, as I did. I don't think I realized until that night just how tired the last decade has made me. I cannot imagine how it feels for those deployed or for those who wake up to a side of the bed that will never again be filled by a loved one.
More than anything else, I felt an incredible sense of grief for those people, those families.
My general feeling was one of relief, but I would be lying if I said that I didn't also feel a faint stirring of joy.
I thought of the people I love and have loved and how thankful I am for them. This is not a safe world, no. I don't believe that the world is any safer for Osama bin Laden having left it.
Still, for a moment, I felt relieved.
Like many Americans, the man was more symbol than flesh and blood to me.
His death marked a milestone in a war fought on multiple fronts that an entire generation had grown up in: a war that, in 2011, was still being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So as I stood in cool spring night beneath the flags and amidst the shouts and tears of those surrounding me, I thought of the people whose lives are affected by the events of 9/11/2001 in ways that I will never understand. I thought of people who live, breathe, and bleed the War on Terror while so many others treat it like a slogan to be worn on a T-shirt or invoked for political leverage.
I didn't think at all about Osama Bin Laden.
Some in the media would later liken the spontaneous eruption at Ground Zero to "dancing on a grave."
Huge crowds of people under the influence of alcohol are never going to be prayerful and calm. That's a simple fact of life. From what I could tell, these people were simply reacting.
Some cheered. Some wept. Some prayed. Some sang.
It didn't surprise me that many of them felt like they were honoring the dead upon whose grave they stood last night by celebrating the death of the man that Americans held largely responsible for their deaths.
No, it won't bring them back. No, it won't make the world any safer. No, it won't end war.
But for a moment, the scene at Ground Zero that night brought Americans a little closer together.
We were simply people who had been bound by grief ten years ago and were now bound again by a sudden outpouring of emotion: some of it joy, some of it pain, and some of it relief.
This was New York's loud, awkward way of telling their loved ones that they were not forgotten; that they were remembered, missed, loved.
They still are. And they always will be.