2 May 2011

Ground Zero, May 1, 2011

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,
He is Wisdom to the mighty, He is Succour to the brave,
So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of Time His slave,
Our God is marching on.
                —“Battle Hymn of the Republic”

Late last night, the President announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed. I saw people speculate about what his announcement would be on Twitter, and then I saw a headline about the announcement on a newspaper website, and then I turned on the TV, where Geraldo Rivera broke the news that Bin Laden had been killed. “Oh, happy day!” he said. “I’m blessed to be able to report this story.”

Rachel, my roommate, came home just before Obama made a speech from the White House, which we watched. My mom sent me a text message which read: “Such thrilling news, but sobering, too, as counterattacks are anticipated. Hope you’ll be extra vigilant and try to avoid iconic locations in NY during the next few days (eg Times Square, etc).” This is what a parent is supposed to say. But then, flipping over to New York 1, Rachel and I heard that people were beginning to gather at Ground Zero. “I kind of want to go,” Rachel said. I didn’t say anything. I kept refreshing various websites. But the whole thing about terrorism is supposed to be that it makes you afraid to go places where you live. So Rachel and I hailed a cab and went to Ground Zero. It was the first time I had ever been. When the cab pulled up to the sidewalk, our driver said, “There’s supposed to be retaliation attacks.” Rachel, who grew up in Kansas City, thought this over while counting out the tip, and then said, “Yikes . . . Well, have a good night!”


One thing I’ve always remembered from Don DeLillo’s Underworld is a passage where a waste-management consultant named Brian Glassic says, “When JFK was shot, people went inside. We watched TV in dark rooms and talked on the phone with friends and relatives. But when Thomson hit the homer, people rushed outside. People wanted to be together. Maybe it was the last time people spontaneously went out of their houses for something. Some wonder, some amazement. Like a footnote to the end of the war.”

People also went outside when Obama was elected. For an hour or two I ran around Cambridge with a bottle of champagne, high-fiving people leaning out of their car windows, hugging police officers. But that only seemed spontaneous. Really everyone had been preparing to go outside for months, like when police in Philadelphia greased the lamp-posts, so that drunk fans could not climb them, in anticipation of the Phillies winning a World Series. This was genuine spontaneity. So we went.

Here is a catalog of the different chants I can remember hearing last night at Ground Zero:

U-S-A. U-S-A.
Obama got Osama. Obama got Osama.
You can’t beat us. [clap-clap-clapclapclap] You can’t beat us.
Fuck bin La-den. Fuck bin La-den.

And here are the songs:

The Star-Spangled Banner
America the Beautiful
God Bless America
Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye

The last time I had heard anyone chant “U-S-A” was in 1996, when my father took me to watch a football game between the Cowboys and the Eagles. As we walked the mile or so from the parking lot to the stadium, we saw a crowd gathered up ahead, and then we were in the crowd, and then a golf cart drove by carrying Kerri Strug, the gymnast who had won a gold medal for the Americans by landing a vault on a seriously injured ankle. I couldn’t believe how tiny she was. She seemed really happy to be high-fiving everybody, and everybody chanted “U-S-A.”

I heard on CNN that people outside the White House had been singing “We Are the Champions,” but I didn’t hear that one in New York. I did hear, the next morning on the radio, that a woman had climbed on top of a car and pulled up her shirt for the crowd, but we missed that part.

Rachel mentioned, the second or third time through the national anthem, that it would be great if people could sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” but of course nobody knows the words. I think it would also make for a better national anthem, just because the melody is so much more exciting, although it does focus a bit much on Jesus Christ and war. We spent a few minutes in silence, just paying attention to how singing washed over everybody. I heard songs start up in one part of the crowd, take root among a group of fifty or so people for the first three-quarters, and then spread generally, all of a sudden, towards the end.

We found ourselves far back in a large crowd, and we thought we could walk around the block and end up with a better view of things. We walked past St. Paul’s Chapel, which had somewhat miraculously gone completely un-damaged on September 11th—not a single broken window. It’s thought that a Sycamore tree, which did fall during the attacks, shielded the building, and in 2005 an artist made a bronze sculpture of the tree’s roots. Walking past the chapel’s graveyard, I wondered who was buried there.

People near the gathering’s center—the center being wherever three or more American flags could be hoisted at once—began holding their arms up in the air and making V-signs. Some people just held up open palms. People began to quiet down. I thought this was extraordinary. It took me a little while to figure out what was happening, but then a little group to my left tried to strike up the national anthem again, and a woman somewhere off to my right silenced them by shrieking “You guys moment of silence!,” her voice ascending in pitch with every syllable. Everyone got it then, and we stayed quiet for about thirty seconds. Then we cheered.

The rest is more or less scattered impressions. For a little while, the crowd cheered for a man standing on top of an orange and white traffic divider. He waved an American flag with some woman’s face on it, and his T-shirt said, “I AM A MUSLIM PLEASE DON’T PANIC.” Eventually he stuffed a bouquet of roses into the bright yellow fence surrounding Ground Zero, now a construction site like any other, and then he stepped down from his divider. A few minutes later, two men who probably aren’t out of college yet climbed a telephone pole. Clutching the sign for Church Street in one hand, they waved a flag with the other, to cheering. And then they displayed a painted cardboard sign, reading, “Obama—1, Osama—0,” to cheering. And then, to extended, loud cheering, they popped open two bottles of champagne and sprayed people near the telephone pole.

CNN reporters gathered behind me. They interviewed a tall man in an Oxford University T-shirt, who said, “You know, seeing all these people in one place . . . “ A middle-aged black woman, almost all by herself, tried to get an “Obama got Osama!” chant going, and as soon as she quieted down the CNN people rushed over to interview her as well. A man stood a few feet away to my right, a big camera on his shoulder, and complained to his co-worker, “I’m trying to get on Twitter, but it’s hard because I’m holding this camera.” Then, a little later, he said, “OK I’m on.”

Three young women, looking up at the telephone-pole boys with the rest of us, were unhappy with the attention they received. “Why aren’t we looking at the monument?” one said, referring to the Freedom Tower that has begun to rise out of the ground. “Why are we looking at two douche-bags waving flags around? I just feel like it’s not respectful. I don’t know how I feel about this whole event.” A muscly man in a t-shirt shouldered his way past me and my roommate, then paused, then looked around in a very focused way for a minute or two, then disappeared. I almost tripped when a cameraman tried to pull his cord past my legs. Later, my roommate reported that a few women behind her had talked about how hot the telephone pole guys were, and had started chanting, “What’s your num-ber?”

How many tens of thousands of photographs were taken while Rachel and I stood and looked around for half an hour? The flashing, now a permanent feature of night-time crowds everywhere, never let up.


I wish I knew how to behave in crowds. One disconcerting fact about them today is that the physical crowd is just the foundation, and that there are larger crowds of digital ghosts layered on top. It was strange to stand around and look at people who were standing around looking at people, all the while knowing I was being described on cell phones, reported on by CNN, tagged in photographs on Facebook. It makes you feel like a schizophrenic. I had not realized until recently that being in a crowd is something you learn how to do, and that I don’t know anything.

What I remember most is the intensely lit quality of the construction site. The cranes were all attractively posed at right angles to one another, and I spent a few minutes enjoying the latticework shadows they cast. You better believe this arrogant tower is getting built.

I was 14 years old on September 11th. It was my first semester of high school. That Tuesday, I was in a class taught by a lazy person who allowed us to turn on SportsCenter for the last ten minutes of the period, and so at 8:55 AM we turned on the TV, where the North Tower had already been vomiting smoke for ten minutes. We watched the second plane hit live. School administrators decided that TVs should be kept off for the rest of the day, and that classes should proceed as usual. Teachers refused to talk about it, so what remained was hallway speculation. By the time I got home at 2:30 that afternoon, I was sure that the towers, the Pentagon, the White House, and the Washington Monument had all been destroyed.

I have no memories of being frightened or angered by the attacks. My family had no close New York ties, and everything looked so much like a movie, and at 14 I was too young to imagine the grief of others and turn it into my own. I suppose I knew in some basic way that a “historic” thing had happened, because I do remember that I made a point of saving the Inquirer that arrived on our doorstep the next morning.

But I am glad that this man, this TV character dressed up like a thirteenth-century shepherd with a prop AK-47, is dead. I am glad he is dead I am glad he is dead. At Ground Zero, when people began to chant “Fuck Bin La-den” and sing songs they learned at NFL half-times, I hated it, but what else were they going to do? Around 1:45 AM Rachel and I went looking for someplace to have a beer, and my steps fell perfectly in time to the Battle Hymn playing inside my head. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the something, dum-dee-dum,” I thought, and my heart beat a little faster, and I hated that, too.

Image: Ground Zero, May 1, 2011. From lightbox.time.com.

Subscribe!

It’s the right thing to do.

Sign up now to start receiving the magazine that believes history isn't over just yet.

Subscribe now »

  • Richard Beck
    • 5.4

      His parents got angry about the phone bills he racked up contacting record labels in New York, but as the free CDs began to roll in, Schreiber realized that he had found his calling. More…