The day after President Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden, I took the subway to the site of the World Trade Center. Hours before, the area had been full of celebration, but by time I arrived, the mood had subsided into reverent murmur. News cameras were filming, flags were waving and signs were being held, but the dominant figures were the people sitting and standing by the site, silently looking on.
On Sept. 11, 2001a TuesdayI was a 7th grader at Exploris Middle School in downtown Raleigh. After the second plane flew into the South Tower of the World Trade Center, my class was shuffled into a large screening room to watch the live news broadcast. Many of my classmates were in tears. A few went home with their parents. One was trying desperately to hear if her uncle who lived in New York was alive. All I remember was how helpless I felt in comprehending the tragedy.
Last year, I moved to New York, drawn here by the same ineffable magnetism that attracts many in my generation. I’ve since walked by the World Trade Center site several timesnever closer to answering the difficult questions it provokes, but every time further away from the trauma it represents. On Monday I walked by the site once, and then again, and then again.
My initial reaction to seeing New Yorkers celebrate in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death was confusion: Was it not this very sense of bloodlust in our enemies that spawned the attacks on September 11th? When I visited the World Trade Center site on Monday, my perception changed. Just as it’s fallacious to understand bin Laden’s death as the end of foreign terror, it’s also mistaken to understand the celebrations at Ground Zero as a generalized glorification of violence.
Nearly a decade after the attacks, our systems of meaning still struggle to cope with the event. We’ve created a chessboard of playersBush, Rumsfeld, Obama, bin Laden, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, et al. Sunday’s news represents a veritable checkmate in this game. Nonetheless, many Americans still yearn for answers to unconquerable questions. Our symbolic reaction to the trauma of September 11th saturated singular symbols with complex, multivalent meanings. Osama, then, is not Osama is not Osama. This human murderalways unquestionably a somber eventalso occasioned the symbolic death of a figure at the root of American anxiety for the past decade. Even the announcement of Osama bin Laden’s death was symbolicwithout seeing photographs or DNA evidence, Americans rejoiced at President Obama’s mere proclamation. What I witnessed on Monday was real coping; the celebrations on Sunday were symbolic coping. Both are necessary.
Trauma has no end; it is merely superseded by new memory. Today is a new memory: a memory of a world without the terror of Osama bin Laden, a memory of 10 years of rocky solidarity in coping with tragedy, a memory of the first time since September 11th that Americans have had a reason to celebrate at the World Trade Center site. Businesses around the site of the World Trade Center have begun displaying signs for the 9/11 Memorial that read, “Forever Changed. Forever Connected.” Especially here in New York, Americans are also forever coping. Sunday was a breakthrough, but the work continues.