News of bin Laden's Death Digs Up Old Memories

The Pentagon on September 11, 2001, not quite ten years ago
The Pentagon on September 11, 2001, not quite ten years ago

My son called me last night from Henderson, Nevada at 11:30. You know how it is with late night phone calls. You get that sinking feeling: Something’s wrong.

Turned out something was right.

“Did you hear the news?” he asked.

My son isn’t the effusive, over-the-top type, but I could tell he was glad about the news of Osama bin Laden. You have to be an al Qaeda member not to be relieved that bin Laden was gone for good.

I watched the president’s speech about the news as he connected the dots between 9/11 and its tragic outcome for so many people in New York and here in Washington. I flashed almost instantly back to that day, as I’m sure many did. Osama bin Laden did not live in a cave, as many had originally thought, but a comfortable, pricy compound outside of Islamabad in Pakistan.

I went to sleep and it stayed with me. I woke up thinking about it.

I thought it might be a good thing to take the same 42 Metro Bus I took less than ten years ago to the Farragut Square stop and relive the time, thinking maybe something would come of it.

I stopped at Lafayette Square in front of the White House where the night before in a spontaneous eruption of joy and relief, Americans, most of them young, demonstrated vibrantly and defiantly and celebrated the death of a fiend whose deed has haunted and changed our daily life.

Flags were waved. People shouted, “USA! USA! USA!” At a New York and Philadelphia baseball game, crowds cheered. At a rousing gathering of people at Ground Zero in New York, where the dust is still holy, in fire stations all over the city, in Boston and the heartland, people cheered.

It was quieter at Lafayette Park by mid-morning the next day, but the buzz was still palpable with the sun shining off the press umbrellas and gear on the White House grounds, where a sniper loomed on top of the building. The boisterous throngs had left, but there were still tourists posing in front of the White House, the usual mis-an-scene on the street and the decades-old permanent anti-nuke and peace demonstrators. The media remained, many of them international television crews, roaming like restless pigeons going over crumbs, looking for archetypical Americans to interview. The middle-aged, mustached man with an American flag t-shirt corralled everyone. Anyone who might have looked like a heartland tourist was instantly buttonholed.

A man was on the phone, calling someone in Florida, “We got the SOB,” he said. “Thank god. We got him.” He was an Oriole fan, a retired landscaper at Loyola, a man still haunted by what he had seen on television those ten years ago, planes going into buildings. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I thought it was a Rambo movie. You just don’t forget. Too many people. It was a shock. I never had a cell phone til' then.”

His name was Strickland, and he embraced the moment as if it was a lifeline to the time before it happened. “I bet you money,” he said, “that right about now he’s in good company. You know, Hitler, Stalin, those guys. And I bet Mohammed wants to have a stern word with him too, about what he did to the reputation of Islam.”

A man walked around carrying a sing that read, “End the wars,” a message not entirely engaged with by people who wanted to savor this moment, as a War on Terror victory, who couldn’t forget that Tuesday morning and the disaster that came out of the skies and all the years since.

“The guy deserved to die,” a high schooler said. He was three years old when the airplanes hit the World Trade Centers.

Geraldo Rivera arrived, resplendent as only he can be: the mustache, the suit, the sparkling teeth and the clichés. “There’s Geraldo, “somebody yelled. He got the crowd to wave at the White House. “What goes around comes around,” the Fox News star said. People cheered.

There were girls in threes holding up newspaper headlines to be photographed. The guy in a flag t-shirt came by. His name was Joe Pisciotta, and he was a history teacher at TC Williams High School in Northern Virginia. He'd gone to the Pentagon only moments after the plane had crashed into the building. “I took some pictures,” he said. “You could see what was happening…the destruction, what the plane had done, all that furious destruction.”

“Maybe all those families, all those people who lost someone, maybe they’ll get some closure,” he said. “We all need it, I guess. I’m glad he’s dead.”

He did not say this with rancor and that reminded me that I was glad, too. Not dancing-in-the-street glad, but glad nonetheless. I remembered that day too, because I was right here, where he and I were talking.

I was going to the Corcoran for an exhibition. I didn’t make it. There were hundreds of people on their cell phones, frantic.

I asked the policemen, who were as calm as a rock in sunlight, what was going on. “Two planes hit the World Trade Center buildings. Another one hit the Pentagon a little while ago. One is supposed to be coming this way.” He nodded at the White House behind us.

None of it quite registered. That a plane could actually crash into the White House didn’t occur to me. Like everyone else, it overwhelmed me. I had not seen the images on television yet. Then it registered.

I saw Christian stockbrokers kneel in the street and pray for New York. I saw thousands begin the long trek home across the Virginia bridges, the circles leading to Bethesda and Chevy Chase and further on.

I bought a throw-away camera at CVS. I went to the Mayflower Hotel to find a phone. People were huddled around a television set, and you heard about them trying to get to New York. With Peter Jennings announcing, I saw the second tower fall. I couldn’t think of anything at all. A woman said that we were all going home to a different world.

I didn’t know what that meant, thinking back, but I knew it was the truth. Later in the week, people in the neighborhood came to a nearby plaza, lit candles, and sang “We Shall Overcome.”

That was nearly ten years ago. The deaths, the shock and the wars are never far from my mind. Osama bin Laden’s death shows that. President Obama gave a speech touching on memory and unity: all of us are haunted the same way.

In a year when bad news was a part of your breakfast cereal, the death of an evil man seems like bloody sunshine. I bask in it, uncomfortably, waiting for warmth and relief, as if something had ended at last.

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Mon, 1 Sep 2014 14:42:43 -0400

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