On September 11, 2001, my family had just begun it’s long ride home from vacationing in Cape Cod when we pulled into a gift shop and heard on the store radio that two planes had hit the World Trade Center. We ended up going home the next day instead, and the trip across the Tappan Zee bridge was like a funeral procession, as every car slowly idled across, heads turned toward Manhattan and the huge column of brown-gray smoke that rose from the city and smeared across the sky. I remember the skies being quiet, wondering when, if ever, we were going to bring Osama bin Laden to justice.
I remember my neighbors mourning somebody they lost in the attack. I remember a colleague of mine who was living in lower Manhattan on 9/11 and saw the towers collapse with his own eyes. But before that, he saw the people jumping out of burning windows and tumbling all the way to the ground. He still saw them in his dreams, he once told me, and ultimately he moved to California to put some distance between himself and the place where he saw such awful things.
I remember how, some years later, a friend of mine in the Marines was nearly killed by an IED in Iraq. Ten of his men were not so lucky. I was used to bearing reports of soldiers killed in the news, but somehow when I heard this one report my wife and I both knew it had been our friend who got hit this time. He would not have been there had 9/11 never occurred. Nor would have his colleagues who never made it home.
On the night we killed Osama bin Laden, I woke my wife and turned on the TV to see the announcement. I woke my daughter and brought her downstairs so she could watch it, too. She was only one year old when 9/11 happened, but she knew who bin Laden was and what it meant now that he was gone. When we finally received the news from President Obama, we opened a bottle of champagne and celebrated. Not that a human had been slain; life is too precious for that, something you good people know only too well, considering the business that you are in. No, we celebrated that an agent of death would no longer do his grim work against the world, and that those who swore loyalty to bin Laden would now have to find someone or something else to champion their lost and pointless lives. Something better, we hoped. Something that could celebrate life rather than revel in it’s destruction.
The day after, I walked around Hoboken at lunchtime, and encountered a woman wearing a stars and stripes shirt over a t-shirt that had on it a wanted poster for bin Laden. She told me she got it at Ground Zero, where she had been a first responder on 9/11. I gave her a hug and thanked her for what she did. Moments later, I watched a commercial airliner fly up the Hudson, followed by another, and then another and then another. It made me think of how just a few weeks earlier I had overflown Manhattan on my way into JFK airport, and how even then I looked for the Twin Towers, knowing full well they were not there.
We will never forget the wound we all sustained some ten years ago, nor how it unified us in our resolve to stand before the darkness and to not be afraid. Osama bin Laden scarred us not realizing that the deepest scars heal the strongest. I don’t know if he ever understood that before he died, but I sure hope he did. For he exited this world leaving America a stronger people than we were before, and he entered the hereafter not so he could join those he murdered, but so he could answer to them.