This reflection originally appeared as a featured discussion on the National Conference on Citizenship Blog and has been republished with their permission.
Last night, like the rest of the world, I sat glued to my television screen watching President Obama announce the death of Public Enemy Number 1—Osama Bin Laden. Immediately preceding and following the speech, I also saw footage of people gathering and cheering in front of the White House, a building six blocks from my apartment. Like many, these images gave me great pause.
Part of me felt the same sense of pride and celebration that they did. And part of me felt a sense of inappropriateness at the way some were choosing to display their feelings. I said to my friends I was with “It’s weird to see someone’s death, however horrible they were, being treated like it’s a pep rally… Something about this reminds me eerily of the videos we saw of people in the Middle East celebrating in the streets after 9/11.”
We all agreed we weren’t sure how we felt about the display, but we recognized we had the opportunity to experience this in a very unique way—different from how much of the country would receive or process the news. Ultimately, we decided it was a moment in history to which we wanted to bear witness. So we made the six block trek to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
As I arrived to the crowds of cheering and singing people waving flags, I sent a tweet. Still not sure of my emotion or the enormity of that moment, I chose for it to contain just 5 words: “At the White House. Unbelievable.” I attached a picture, hit send, and waded with my friends into the crowd.
I was starting my sophomore year in college in Oklahoma in September 2001. Last night, May 1, 2011 as I stood in front of the White House, surrounded by 20 year-olds in their fraternity hoodies, I was struck by the fact they are the age now that I was when 9/11 happened. The events of September 11, 2001 probably represent some of their earliest memories. I knew my generation (the Millennials) is sometimes referred to as the “9/11 Generation,” but last night, this name took on completely new meaning.
What I witnessed there was an overwhelming energy, similar to what I experienced on election night in 2008. By all accounts, it was a celebration. But by and large, it was not a celebration that a man had died. I’m sure some were there to celebrate that—I’d be naïve not to see that, but I don’t think I personally heard one person actually say his name. There was no bashing of any other countries, cultures, or people. There was no burning of religious books. I did not view this as a celebration of death, but of life, service, perseverance, and hope.
What I witnessed last night was a coming together; a celebration of the shared experience of being American. A celebration of the fact we can finally take a piece of the horror we ALL felt 9 years, 7 months, and 20 days ago and put it behind us. Of the lives of the 3,000 victims who senselessly died and their families that were forever changed that fateful September morning. That our brothers, sisters, cousins, classmates, significant others, and friends, have not spent years in war for ambiguous reasons. That the thousands of them that gave their lives had not done so in vain. And a celebration of the countless volunteers, social workers, firefighters, police officers and others that have worked tirelessly to rebuild our communities, and our souls, in the last 10 years.
I was overwhelmed by what I saw last night, but also what I saw when I got home. The picture I put on Twitter just 3 hours earlier had been tweeted 241 times, viewed 3,159 times, and translated into at least 3 languages. I had come together not with a few thousand people at 16th and Penn, I had, however unintentionally, come together with so many around the world. My father is an immigrant, and I’ve always felt compelled, not only by the rights and responsibilities of my U.S. citizenship, but my role as a global citizen as well. This gave me a special moment to think about that. I thought back to a few moments earlier and the Canadian, Australian, and even Algerian flags I saw waving in concert with the American ones at the White House. September 11, while viciously perpetrated on United States soil, affected the world.
My friends and I still have a lot of conflicting emotions about the events that happened yesterday, what we saw last night, and what this means for us as Americans (and global citizens) in the days and years to come. But I do know what I will take away from both September 11, 2001 and May 1, 2011, and what I still know to be true:
“On that day, no matter where we came from, what God we prayed to, or what race or ethnicity we were, we were united as one American family.” –President Obama
Kristen Cambell is Director of Programs and New Media at NCoC