I spent all of May 2 watching television news, trying to get my head around the idea that Osama Bin Laden is dead. I'll never forget where I was when I heard, just as I'll never forget where I was on September 11, 2001, when American life changed forever.
We all have our 9/11 stories. Mine unfolded on Long Island. I was driving to the office, listening to Howard Stern talk about the first plane that hit the north tower. There was speculation, at least for a few minutes, that it was a small craft piloted, perhaps, by someone who'd had a mid-air heart attack. I switched the channel and listened in real time as another radio DJ watched — and screamed — when United Flight 175 slammed into the south tower of the World Trade Center. In an instant the world changed course. We were at war.
When I got to my office fifteen minutes later two of my employees were standing outside. I asked if they'd heard. As would grim reapers, they simultaneously lifted arms to point. I turned and saw the trade centers in flames across the bay.
Like everyone else in this country, and indeed around the world, I spent September 11 stunned. Rumors were rampant, that the terrorists had other planes (true), that a 747 was crossing the Atlantic toward New York City laden with a nuclear weapon (thankfully, false). The day unraveled and telephone lines were jammed, although I got a call out to a friend whose husband, while I was on the telephone, shouted in the background, "They've hit the Pentagon!" Fighter jets flew overhead, which I could see out my office window. The first tower fell and I was stricken. This was incomprehensible. Then the second tower fell and all that remained of those beautiful shining buildings was rubble and death. There are dozens of people I know who lost children, husbands, siblings, parents, friends, those who were sitting at their desks or in conference rooms going about their morning. In the weeks to come my neighborhood was rife with funerals. It was the most terrifying day of my life.
Two things happened in those 24 hours, however, that have haunted me for nine years. The first was in a bar around 5:00 p.m. on 9/11. Co-workers and I were having much-needed drinks at a local place. The television was tuned to the news and there was a man sitting alone at the bar, crying and swearing. He was inconsolable and seemed, at least to us, unbalanced. Finally we asked the waitress what was going on. She explained that he was a fireman who had retired the week before. Every man in his fire station company was dead, crushed beneath the collapsing towers. "I should have been there," he muttered over and over, not talking to us, not talking to anyone. I think of him often, and can still hear his tortured weeping.
The second haunted moment was on September 12 when I walked out my front door. There was an odor in the air, something inexplicable. It was the smell of burning flesh wafting from lower Manhattan.
I am happy that Osama Bin Laden is dead. For almost a decade I have wished for this even though it feels wrong somehow, in my secret heart, to long for the demise of another human being. Even so, even though I'm glad he's gone, I am troubled at gatherings of Americans who rejoice in death because these displays seem too much like others burning flags and chanting happily when ill befalls us. I myself have not chanted with glee today, but happy I am. Because of you, Mr. Bin Laden, I now grip a pen every time I fly, fully prepared to jam it into the eye of a terrorist who rises in the seat next to me with plans to take down the airplane. Because of you, I now consider the possibility of a bridge disappearing beneath me, or that a bomb might explode in a hotel where I am upstairs brushing my teeth. I was raised to believe it is wrong to wish harm to others. Nevertheless, I am happy that Navy Seals, as Tony Soprano might say, popped a cap in your ass. You had this one coming, my secret heart notwithstanding.
There are those who feel that America, the Great And Evil Empire, was also asking for it, "it" being the global pillaging of oil, the killing of innocents, and the skulking of scary and dark-hooded CIA agents that ultimately resulted in our getting a comeuppance on 9/11. I am not one of those people. With all due humility, I have traveled the world and without exception have figuratively, if not literally, kissed the floor of John F. Kennedy Airport every time I've come home. Yes, America has its problems. Our foreign and political policies are not always as noble as we might like them to be. The alternative, however, is more scary and dark than any CIA agent could conjure. Bin Laden and his cohorts were and are not terrorizing the world because our drones have killed innocents. They are not terrorizing the world because of oil. Their mission, in my humble opinion, is to change our way of life, to strip our freedom and put a veil over my head, to cut off the hands of a man who steals bread. They are not tenants of Islam. They are tenants of fear and power and death. For this, Osama Bin Laden deserved to die badly in a Pakistani bedroom. And I am glad, although he might not have done the same for me, that we gave him a decent burial. To have flung his corpse from a helicopter into the ocean would have shown the world that we, like our enemies, also are barbarians.
Today my friend Gloria said she hadn't realized until now that Bin Laden's lurking somewhere in the Mideast had been a rock in her shoe, and closure for 9/11 a nagging dream. She hoped, as did I, that he was hungry and cold in a dripping cave. He was not. Instead, he was comfortable in a million-dollar compound, his wives and thugs around him, turning his face to the sun behind 18-foot walls and razor wire. In the end, the good guys won, for surely on Sunday American soldiers and President Barack Obama and his team were the good guys. The path is not opening now to green valleys and blue skies, but at least the rock in our shoe is gone and the journey is a little easier.
For me, with the smell of roasting flesh still and always in my mind, justice has been served. I hope my fireman in the Long Island bar, wherever he is, can at last sleep easy tonight.