A First Person Account from Ground Zero

Owen Keiter
May 6, 2011

Last night, around a quarter to twelve, I was in my apartment two
blocks south of Ground Zero, listening to President Obama announce the
death by force of Osama bin Laden. After the live stream from the White
House ended, I put on a jacket and walked up along Church Street to the
northeast corner of the construction site.

There was already a crowd gathering by the time I arrived, doing the
sorts of things you’d expect -- waving flags, singing patriotic songs.
They chanted “U-S-A!” and passing cars sounded their horns in time. The
first television cameras were already there before midnight, and a news
crew interviewed a man who’d wrapped himself in an American flag.

Soon people were arriving at the corner in bursts -- each time a
subway came in at Chambers Street station, the crowd swelled -- and the
police were redirecting traffic. Looking across the crowd, between every
few heads there was a camera snapping a picture. A wide variety of
flags sprang up -- one with thirteen stars; one with the face of Marilyn
Monroe superimposed over it; one somewhat inexplicable Irish flag,
which bobbed around near the gates of the site. Somebody threw a roll of
toilet paper over a streetlamp, and a long strip of it blew in the
wind, creating a different sort of a flag. From deep in the crowd a
shofar rose up occasionally, bellowing. Meanwhile, new chants were
appearing. The most popular one was “Fuck Osama.” A woman near me was
shouting: “Dead. Dead. He’s fucking dead. America the Beautiful.”

This crowd was disproportionately comprised of young people, mostly
in their twenties. As I stood there it occurred to me that these were
people who’d spent their youth in a version of America defined by 9/11,
an event that had eviscerated the country’s sense of impregnability. But
it was the older members of the crowd who seemed to be invested in the
drama of the event, some crying, some wordlessly screaming. Instead, the
younger generation -- for reference, that’s my generation -- was
climbing the streetlamps to spray champagne over the crowd, or hi-fiving
and drinking forties, as though at a frat party.

A man in a jacket with a homemade NYPD patch sold miniature American
flags for ten dollars each. A man running into the crowd, drunk,
screamed, “You fuck with us, we’re gonna shit on you.” A kid in a Mets
T-shirt spat, at no one in particular, “Fucking Hajji.” I did not see
anyone in the crowd who appeared to be of Arab descent.

And in the middle of the fray, I kept feeling my attention drawn to
the half-built tower that stands on the site of the onetime World Trade
Center. I wanted, badly, to feel the energy of that moment, and to
celebrate an historic occasion. I’d ought to be excited that a person
who was in the business of killing the people of my country was no
longer in the world. But there was something incredibly vulgar about the
spirit of that moment, in which no one was without a camera and a cell
phone -- for a lot of the crowd, it seemed to be just an excuse to
party, and I couldn’t shake the fact that we were doing it in the shadow
of a mass murder.

We weren’t alone, of course. This morning, the Huffington Post published a story on students’ reactions to the killing, which included this description of events at Penn State:

"Amid chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" and renditions of "God
Bless America" and "Proud to be an American," students burned their
notes for Monday's finals, strew toilet paper in the trees, set off
fireworks, crowd surfed and ran through the crowd with American flags.
One girl even starting [sic] doing cheerleading stunts and unbuttoned
her shirt in front of the crowd."

I left before long. As I walked home, a group of young people stopped
a couple on the street to ask them if they knew of any bars in the
area. “We’re looking, too,” the man said, and the girl laughed.

Later, my roommate and I went up to the roof of our apartment
building, which overlooks the construction site. The crowd’s noise
floated across that negative space with its cranes and skeletons of
half-finished buildings. From a distance, the voices blended together
into a sort of ghostly scream which echoed down the streets of the
Financial District. “It’s about fear,” my roommate said.

For my part, I couldn’t stop thinking about bin Laden. What was it
about the death of this individual human being that had brought everyone
out that night, including myself? We weren’t celebrating the end of
Al-Qaeda, and we clearly weren’t celebrating the end of the war. Osama
bin Laden was a single human being who’d been camped out somewhere in
Pakistan for a number of years; his ability to hurt the United States
personally was extremely limited, as a matter of fact. And his
assassination was the sort of event which could be counted on to agitate

But I can remember, too, the way things were on September 11th, 2011,
when I was in the seventh grade. We watched the news in class; we
watched the first tower burn and the second plane hit. We saw people
coming out of the high windows, flying. We’d never seen anything like it
before, nor imagined that it was even possible. I remember watching a
teacher watch the television without blinking; he muttered to himself,
never once looking away, even when the school bell rang and we all filed
out. When we left the school, all of our parents were standing in a
mass in the parking lot, waiting to receive us -- they ran up, calling
our names, needing to see our faces.  Things were going to be different
and we all knew it.

In that one sense, the phrase “War on Terror” is completely accurate.
Along with the rational, credible threats that are sometimes posed to
America by extremist groups, we’ve been fighting against that sense of
shattered security. Bin Laden’s crime was mass murder, but it was also
the act of ending our ability to feel stable or safe. My generation has
grown up without that sense of security, and bin Laden, by his actions,
has ceased to be a person for us, becoming instead the ever-present
symbol of that instability. Now that he is dead, it’s hard to know how
to feel. We want to celebrate the fact that he's gone -- we want to
claim victory, to feel that relief. And in the case of those at Ground
Zero last night, some feel a clear urge to party.

This was originally posted on HeadCountBlog, the blog of HeadCount.org.  It is reprinted here with permission.