The view from 9/11 to 5/1

In the muddled aftermath of the terrorist attacks, bin Laden's death offers some clarity

May 03, 2011|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

The news that the U.S. had killed Osama bin Laden arrived Sunday night with bracing clarity — the kind rarely seen since 9/11 itself.

It's been almost 10 years since terrorists killed nearly 3,000 Americans on a single day, a shocking event that instantly seemed to divide life into before and after. Pearl Harbor, the JFK assassination, Antietam — no historical antecedent seemed too overstated.

And yet, somehow, unless you lost someone to the terrorist attacks or the subsequent wars fought in its name, 9/11 eventually lost its hold on the ever-fleeting American attention span. For most it soon was only experienced as an annoyance at the airport, yet even there, each new security measure piled up so gradually, in 3-ounce dribs and millimeter-wave drabs, that eventually they arrived divorced from their whole reason for being.

But on Sunday night, it all came back — what the past 10 years were all about.

"There was unfinished business with him," said Arie Kruglanski, a University of Maryland psychology professor with the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. "That's why there was so much joy and exuberance on Sunday."

It would be easy to see them as bookends: 9/11/01 and 5/1/11. We were attacked, we struck back. But those who study the effects that such momentous events have on American culture say the lessons of history are rarely so orderly, or immediately obvious.

"As a historian, you think 10 years is the minimum you need to assess," said Stephen Brier, a historian at City University of New York. "It's sort of ironic that as we approach the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, we get the news that Osama bin Laden has been killed.

"But I don't think these things have distinct beginnings and ends," said Brier, noting that bin Laden had slipped off the radar as the rebellions in Egypt, Tunisia and other Middle Eastern countries have taken place on their own, apart from him.

"He's almost become an afterthought," Brier said. "He's not driving that political train."

Brier is among a group of historians and new-media specialists at CUNY and George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., who have gathered some 150,000 pieces of electronic ephemera from 9/11 for the Library of Congress. The raw material — photos, video clips, emails, interviews and, poignantly, even voice mails that those trapped in the World Trade Center towers left on the phones of their loved ones — will serve future historians trying to make sense of the terrorist attacks, he said.

"It's hard to overstate how profoundly the event shaped people's lives," said Brier, recalling how unbelievable it felt to watch, as he did from a street in Manhattan, as one of the towers simply vaporized before his eyes, and to feel the nation under attack.

"It must have been fairly similar to … Pearl Harbor. It is that sense of vulnerability. There was this sense that it happens in Europe, or it happens in Israel, but not here," he said. "We live with the consequences of that event every time we go to the airport or step into a train station."

In between the 2001 attacks and bin Laden's death was nearly a decade of upheaval: The original war in Afghanistan dragged on, a new war in Iraq was launched, there was anthrax and Abu Ghraib and domestic wiretapping and then the Wikileaks and, most recently, the Arab Spring and the attack on Libya. Not to mention the recession and the stimulus and health care reform and elections and all the other domestic issues that turned our attention inward.

Bill Spade, a New York firefighter who was the only one of his firehouse shift to survive 9/11, spent much of the intervening years keeping the event alive — he is a tour guide at a tribute center across from Ground Zero, he travels to speak at anniversary commemorations, he threw out the first pitch for a Yankees game at Camden Yards one year.

If anything demonstrates how quickly history can turn to farce, though, consider the circumstance by which Spade learned of bin Laden's death:

"The irony of it was I was watching 'The Apprentice' [Sunday] night, and it seems like Donald Trump and President Obama have been having a little feud lately," Spade said Monday. "When they said the president was going to be making a speech, I said, 'I can't believe he's getting back at [Trump] by cutting into the show."

Maybe Spade is simply too close to the personal tragedy of 9/11 to see it in larger context — he said his eyes filled with tears upon the news of bin Laden's death, but he felt no joy.

"Nothing can replace what we lost that day," said Spade, who retired after being injured during rescue efforts. "When I ask firefighters how things are at the firehouse, they say things will never be normal. I guess that's the new normal."

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