On Cheering Death

Beneath it all, a lot of us had capitulated or simply become too anxious about what baggage had accumulated on the road to a compound in Abbottabad. Until tonight.
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A few minutes after the news of the Osama Bin Laden's timely death diffused wildly across the electronic corridors, I freed myself from the grasp of the commentariat and went to a bar on 4th Avenue in Brooklyn. I went for reasons I couldn't immediately identify, somewhere between wanting to celebrate and not wanting to sit at my desk for another few hours, mouth-breathing and pouring over the social media deluge.

At the bar, the mood was festive despite the late Sunday hour and I was instantly greeted by two guys in their 50s, Lou and Gordon, who were sort of rough hewn and drunk and very excited by the news.

"WE GOT HIM," they shouted alternatively, unleashing high-fives to anyone who'd reluctantly take them.

They introduced themselves as native New Yorkers and we spoke for a minute before I posted up with a glass of whiskey and (to fulfill the cliché) watched the news I wasn't able to see at home where I don't have cable. While people came in and out, the commentary at the bar and on the screen continued apace. Chuck Schumer was outside of his apartment some blocks away on Prospect Park West giving remarks on NY1, while a few people at the bar discussed whether reprisal attacks could be expected. Next we were transmitted inside the Long Island living room of Peter King, who praised the operation more effusively than even Schumer had. Despite the moment, a few people found the energy to summon up some stunningly casual profanity about King before returning to their drinks.

Shortly after, the newscast ended and Gordon and Lou were back, urging me to hop in a cab to Ground Zero with them. My tab was short of the credit card minimum, the bartender suggested a beer ("How about a Budweiser?") and while I pounded the beer, they ordered a round of shots for the three of us.

"To that dead motherfucker," said Lou.
"To that dead motherfucker," Gordon chimed back, I sort of mumbled it.

The cab driver seemed neither perplexed nor completely understanding when Gordon explained that we wanted to go to Ground Zero. The car radio had the news going and we listened to it as we crossed the Brooklyn Bridge on what still appeared to be a quiet Monday morning. We had passed the point where we needed to discuss what this meant for us, the stories of where we were or who we knew had become moot across these nine years, which may explain what was so sudden and (somewhat) sobering about the news.

Beneath it all, I imagine, a lot of us had capitulated or simply become too anxious about what baggage had accumulated on the road to a compound in Abbottabad, deeper both in Pakistan and our imaginations than we expected to have to look. Until tonight.

The cab stopped a few blocks shy of the World Trade Center site where the shouts of a gathered crowd were wildly audible. I split off from my two escorts who wanted to hold back at the perimeter where a more solemn assembly of firemen and police held court. Both offered extraordinarily brief hugs. Inside the mass, chants of "USA, USA" carried on while different parts of the crowd started their renditions of "God Bless America," the national anthem, the pledge of allegiance, and Lee Greenwood's allegedly erstwhile "God Bless the USA." One person managed to shout loud enough to tame the unruly crowd into observing a moment of silence, the only sense of order in the early going. Following the quiet, the vuvuzelas sounded and some scattered flags waved among handmade signs and more cameras and smartphones than seemingly possible.

At first, the group consisted largely of college students, most likely by way of the Pace or New School dorms nearby, who with paper cups and cigarettes in hand, shouted and sang and then stood, unsure of how to celebrate the moment. There was a lot of unsaid "what now," which came and left when a new cheer or song began.

The instinct to become critical of the fervor sort of dissipated when I imagined that these kids, freshmen and sophomores especially, had only been 9 or 10 on September 11th and had come of age beneath a national pall of anxiety and impotence. If these celebrations came off as too muscular, too fratty, or too unfeeling to the onlooker, it seemed unfair to blame the kids who might have finally shaken off a barrier that had segmented their youth from those who had the good luck to effloresce in the indomitable America of the post-Cold War years.

As if to punctuate this, two guys in their early 20s clamored up a traffic light and stood beneath the sign for Church Street, where the prayers had been answered. While the crowd roared, celebratory items made their way up, a cardboard sign "Obama 1, Osama 0," an American flag, and finally a bottle of champagne, with which the grateful crowd was sprayed. Stories above the fray, the windows of the Millennium Hotel were silhouetted by guests looking over the scene.

By the time the boys climbed down, the television crews had planted themselves, memorial candles had found their way in, and new groups of revelers had arrived by dozen, more kids, firefighters, ROTC crews, and the NYPD. For a while it all shouted before the bagpipes sounding "Amazing Grace" brought about a silence. We weren't there to celebrate the death of an enemy. We were at a wake for a decade lost.

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