Almost 10 years after 9/11, Osama Bin Laden is dead. The news found me this week as I finished tagging online documents with metadata for a monolithic hi-tech client. It’s mundane work, and brought me back to Sept. 11, 2001, when I set out to complete another mundane task: to paint an old dresser a fresh yellow. I lived in New York City—more specifically, in Astoria, Queens, just across the East River from Manhattan—and, instead of painting, from my rooftop I watched the twin towers fall, one by one. (More accurately, I watched them fall on CNN, only to run back up to the roof to confirm that indeed they were gone.) Even though I was there, witnessing the event with my own eyes, I told myself it was happening over there, across the river (or on TV), away from me, to other people. And that’s how I dealt with the trauma of the greatest tragedy to happen on American soil: with a hefty sense of separation.
For the next few years, I kept myself distracted—a move to L.A., a divorce—but I couldn’t shake a sense of gloom, a sort of psychological dark cloud that clung to me. When the blessed film United 93 was released, I knew what I was experiencing was post-traumatic stress disorder, and I hailed director Greengrass for his courage to go there, to start talking about what had happened. And people did start talking, and I started to feel better. But only a little better. Because what was also happening was a profound shift from “we’re in this together,” which was healing, to “you’re either with us, or you’re against us,” which was not. Suddenly terrorism was on our doorsteps and in our living rooms and at work and everywhere we turned. We were being terrorized, but it became increasingly harder for many of us to say if it was by those we were being protected against, or those we were being protected by. In my heart, I knew that more death, more killings, more revenge wasn’t the answer; In fact, what I needed was just the opposite: forgiveness, reconciliation, hope.
And then came Barack Obama. He was The Answer for those of use who had endured eight long years of the Bush administration.
He was youthful, exuberant, educated, intelligent, democratic and, yes, hopeful. As our first African-American president, Obama was nothing if not a trailblazer, and I was excited about the path he would pave. But instead of a smooth ride toward a more united nation, the path got bumpy fast, and we’ve ended up more divided than ever. Our government is filled, with few exceptions, with entitled bureaucrats who would rather give rights to a dollar bill than to a person in need. Obama’s attempts to, unlike his predecessor, listen to and heed the advice of those he disagrees with backfired, giving rise to a cacophony of noisemakers that apparently think if they yell loud enough, they get their way. (Unfortunately, rich lobbyists can afford very large megaphones.) In three short years, the sweet taste of hope has turned sour with resignation, and our new American Dream is to find the least bad solution out of the mess we’re in.
And then, the news arrives. Obama has killed Osama. As an isolated event, this is not good news: another killing, more death, revenge. But it’s not an isolated event; it’s a cap to a catastrophe that scarred America. And despite my differences with so many of my fellow citizens, I am an American. I read the headlines, and something in me flickers, a fleck of light, a breath I’ve been holding for nine years, seven months and 20 days ... and I exhale, and begin to cry. I’m caught off guard by the news, and shocked by my reaction. I don’t rejoice when we kill people, and yet I’m rejoicing. I’m fucking happy and filled with relief. It’s like a sentence had begun in me on Sept. 11, 2001, and I finally found the period to end it on May 2, 2011.
I’m smart enough to know that the end of Bin Laden isn’t the end of militant extremism. One bullet won’t stop the war. Or bring back those who perished in 9/11. Even though I know that killing people doesn’t stop people from killing, I’m happy we got him.
—Hollis Welch, Boise
I was on a field trip with my environmental science class. We had just toured the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington, camped overnight at a nearby campground, and at 6 a.m., we piled into three huge vans—my entire environmental science lab class, our professor and instructors—and began driving to the Hanford nuclear power plant for our second power plant visit in a three-day, two-night field trip.
We weren’t even a month into the class, so no one really knew each other. We were 12 to 15 people stuck in a van full of strangers with no coffee at 6 a.m.—not exactly a place of comfort.
The driver started snooping around on the radio to see if there was something that could entertain us on our two- to three-hour drive across barren eastern Washington. He found some talk radio, garbled and patchy. The reception was horrible, but it was something about an accident. The radio was phasing in and out and the speakers were so awful that most of us couldn’t hear much more than static and intermittent sentence fragments, especially where I was sitting in the back seat of the dirty 16-person Club Wagon.
As sleeping students woke up, we started to realize it was something serious. A plane crashed into a building; they still thought it was an accident. We can’t tell what’s going on, for the most part. As we drive and listen to them talk about how a plane could have accidentally run into a giant building in the middle of Manhattan, another plane hit. Obviously not an accident, and we’re driving to a nuclear power plant. And we still don’t know the person sitting next to us—not in a conventional way, at least. But it’s starting to get a little more personal.
Cell phones were still pretty terrible back then, and most of us didn’t have them. We were teenagers, freshmen. Texting didn’t exist. Mobile internet was five years out for even the most tech-savvy youngsters. I don’t know if I’d used Google yet. The driver drove until he got a cell phone signal, and called ahead to his contact at the Hanford power plant. They were closing immediately and would remain closed until further notice. We drive back to Moscow, Idaho. Only three more hours of driving with cackling radio noise until we can get online and search Dogpile or Hotbot for the latest news from New York. Or turn on the TV ... but I didn’t have a TV in my dorm room. And I didn’t have any friends, either. I was in a new town, 300 miles away from home, without a single person on campus who knew my name. And our dorm room phones couldn’t make outgoing long-distance calls.
When I got back, I got online to try to figure out what was happening 3,000 miles away. Terrorists, thousands of dead Americans, a new president who I already couldn’t stand because of the Florida recount debacle. Visions of planes gliding effortlessly into buildings burned into my brain. The buildings collapsed, one by one, and then the rage came. Nuke the entire region. Kill everyone. Find anyone who had anything to do with anything and kill them and kill their entire family for good measure. Nothing but total extermination could satisfy that brand of blind rage. Irrational, but it was irrational in an eye-for-an-eye kind of way.
Then war in one country. War in another country. Thousands more dead, billions more spent, and we can’t find the guy who has the head for which we’re all yearning. His people are beheading us and releasing the videos online. News reports tell us the myriad ways al-Qaida can attack us again and cripple the entire nation. If they attack a dam near Seattle, it could take out the entire hydroelectric power grid for the West Coast, not to mention flood every city along every major river in Washington, Idaho and Oregon. If they launch a cyber attack on a power station on the East Coast, they could cripple the power supply for tens of millions of Americans and essentially shut down the nation for weeks at a time. Digital attacks could erase Wall Street information or bank account information. There are a million ways they can destroy us and nothing we can do about it.
It’s fear ... morning, noon and night.
And now it’s been 10 years. My entire adult life. Every major milestone I’ve passed on my own has been on his watch. Saying his existence, along with what he stood for, “defined a generation” is an understatement. It has altered every generation on the planet, and it has defined the lives of every American born since Sept. 12, 2001. Our movies, our video games, our news reports—few go without international terrorism somewhere on the agenda. Our trajectory for the next century was established by his actions and guided by the following pursuit.
Presidents have been chosen because of him. People have killed and people have died because of him. The relationships of global religions will be forever changed because of him.
Everyone will say the War on Terror “still has work to be done.” Everyone will say this is as much a symbolic victory as a practical or strategic victory. But I say this person, this person who stands in a very small group in the history of bloodthirsty murderers, this living embodiment of irrational rage, hatred, racism and violence—this entity is dead. His movement, long since crushed, is now a headless, sickly corpse, rotting with him at the bottom of the ocean.
For me, this is the end of the pervasive fear that lurked in the back of my mind for more than a third of my life. A fear that wasn’t always noticeable and wasn’t always apparent. But it was there. It was there because it was the “new normal.” But not anymore. At least not for now. And that feels pretty good.
—Brian Rich, Boise