“Maybe it will finally be over,” mused one young woman to New York magazine at the Ground Zero celebration. Against a backdrop of unrestrained euphoria, in an area that was only hours before a somber mass grave, she didn’t pinpoint exactly what it was that might be over—but I think I know what she was talking about. The death of Osama Bin Laden brings to a close nearly ten years of anxiety and uncertainty. 9/11 exposed our vulnerabilities, brutally; the aftermath, defined by recklessness abroad and divisiveness at home, only confirmed how unmoored we were. Our stature as world leader, and our preternatural confidence, had both been called into question.
But now, with Bin Laden’s death, a weight that we had nearly forgotten about has been lifted from our shoulders. For a whole generation of young people—my generation, I should note—the years since 9/11 have been stained by of fear. For ten years, we’ve been asking each other variations of the “Where were you when it happened?” question. And the responses, infinite in their diversity, all mean to convey the same basic meaning. If we tell ourselves stories in order to live, we told our stories of 9/11 in order to identify the moment at which a certain basic innocence was lost.
What emerged in the wake of that loss? A new, more paranoid style of American politics, for one. We watched as conspiracy theory became the American political theory. That Donald Trump’s birth certificate campaign reached its crescendo only last week seems fitting. Abroad, we flailed our arms wildly as if we had no idea, really, what to do. Wars without end became the new normal. We spent the decade after 9/11 in a haze of fear. That’s what 9/11 did, after all: it scared us. That’s what all the stories of that day have in common. They are stories of fear rising to the surface.
Hannah Arendt once imagined what she would say to the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, if she had the chance to judge him. “No member of the human race can be expected to share the earth with you,” she wrote. “This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang.” No one wishes to live as dominated by fear. Of course, not all fear will disappear with one man’s death. But in our shared story, fear has not been granted the final word. While it is always strange to celebrate a death, the death of a terrible fear is very much worth celebrating.
Photo credit: bkusler