Thoughts on the Death of Osama bin Laden
I was watching cable television when the phone rang. A friend was on the line to tell me that Obama would be addressing the nation with an important announcement within the half hour. I immediately got onto Twitter to see what I could find out.
The tweets were starting to come in, speculating on what the topic would be. It wasn’t long before the capture of Osama bin Laden was put forth. The announcement that had been slotted for fifteen minutes dragged to almost an hour. When the President went live before the country, the shock element had diminished. The news was intense nonetheless, as I listened to the details given during that first recounting of events.
After hearing to the pundits react and opine on what effect his death would have on America, I went local for my information. I turned on the all news, all the time station, NY1. It had kept me close to the pulse of the city during 9/11, and it didn’t disappoint at this renewed juncture in the story line. While the major networks were focusing on crowds outside the White House, NY1 had trucks on site at Times Square. They led with the account stating that people, in a spontaneous reaction, were headed to Ground Zero on foot —including a group of firemen.
I received numerous calls the next day, from people outside of New York, wanting to know how I felt about Osama bin Laden’s death.
I made my own call on Monday, to the first person that came to mind when I heard the announcement. She had lost her young nephew on that clear September day. The image of her sitting on the steps of my old building telling me about his death is still indelible. “How are you?” I asked her. “It’s very bittersweet,” she told me. “But it doesn’t bring him back. My heart still hurts.”
In 2001, I lived in Manhattan’s East 20s. By September 12th, the neighborhood was plastered with images and descriptions of missing people. A few blocks west, the Sixty-Ninth Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue had been converted into a support center for bewildered families dropping off DNA samples from their loved ones’ hair or tooth brushes. Two avenue blocks west from my front door was the Coroner’s office, where remains were being identified.
The air wasn’t as acrid as it was at Ground Zero, but it was still strange — and would remain so for weeks. As people migrated uptown by foot, I could see them from my window. An army of dazed ants, walking away from the scene of destruction.
My 7-year-old son was at school, up in the 90s. After seeing the second tower fall, I told the administrators to keep him there until 3 p.m. Since we were so close to the Empire State Building, I wasn’t taking any chances. At that point, anything was possible. When he finally arrived home at 5 p.m. after a two-hour bus ride, he was confused and fearful — like the rest of us.
There was plenty of anxiety and paranoia in the following year. Eventually, it began to dissipate. As the notices came down, the empty apartments of those who weren’t coming home were rented. The floral offerings in front of the local firehouse disappeared. There was a slow normalization.
But some things didn’t change. Seeing an airplane overhead in the city’s sky still makes me nervous. More than two sirens wailing in tandem raise the hairs on the back of my neck, reminding me of the succession of fire engines racing down Second Avenue as I walked my puppy early that morning. When I see a fireman now, on the scene loaded down with heavy equipment, I always react the same way. Oh my God. They carried that stuff up all those floors at the Twin Towers.
People have been bandying about the word closure in response to the death of bin Laden. I think in the currency of cycles: time passed, changes that have occurred, looking back, shifting forward. My first grader is now thinking about college. I live in a different part of town. Both my parents have died.
The scenes of jubilant New Yorkers in midtown celebrating raucously on Sunday night made me feel uncomfortable. The quiet dignity that the President brought to town on Thursday, when he visited with first responders and 9/11 families, felt more fitting to me. When he laid a wreath of red, white, and blue flowers at the “Survivor Tree” — a callery pear found in the debris that was nursed back to health and replanted — the journey had come full circle.
Unlike closure, a circle is fluid. It means that sometimes the events of that September are a distant thought. At other moments, the experience of being on the subway or walking through Grand Central Station can bring me to thoughts of terrorism.
As a New Yorker, I have lived through a piece of history. September 11th was our Pearl Harbor. The death of Osama bin Laden means that a very important piece of something is over. However, the rest of the equation lingers. It’s alive. It’s palpable. It’s in my blood.
Image Courtesy of RVR Associates
What a powerful essay Marcia. I still remember that day as well as the people “like ants” walked uptown to get away from the area covered with the dust of death walking dazed and shocked. I had to walk to Queens and buy the last pair of sneakers in Sports Authority after evacuating the Chrysler Building. Our lives would never be the same after that day. The hurt from the loss of the families of victims will continue to burn for many years but at least their killer is dead.
Well written and brought me back to that day as well… I also agree with you in re the jubilation – made me also very uneasy.
Marcia–I very much appreciate your writing about the complexity of dealing with trauma and the hoped-for “closure” that glows more brightly when people like bin Laden have been exterminated. Thanks for a beautiful essay; it reminded me of what Steven Johnson wrote in his book, Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life. He’s also a New Yorker and recounts how, years later, a bright sunny day is enough to make him anxious, vigilant and to involuntarily remember…
Not only doesn’t the death of bin Laden end the terror we internalize, it doesn’t do anything to prevent the terror living within the human brain that generations to come will turn into real, externalized, violence against other people. When will this country get some psychological intelligence into its rhetoric? We are militaristic, through and through.