What Osama's death looked like at ground zero

I rode the subway in to experience the madness for myself -- the crowds, the tweeting and the conspiracy theories

Published May 2, 2011 2:59PM (EDT)


"Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.”

-- President Barack Obama, May 1, 2011


This is how history breaks in 2011. I was watching AMC's "The Killing" last night when my daughter walked into the living room around 11 p.m. and said, "Osama bin Laden is dead."

"What? Are you sure? Where did you hear this?"

"It's online."

The texts and calls and tweets and Facebook posts and cable news ticker feeds piled up from there, morphing into that familiar buzzing audiovisual din. Our other atmosphere.

At first there was no actual news, just rumor and speculation. Finally the Sunday night shows were interrupted by reports that Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida mastermind and America's most wanted criminal, might finally be dead, nine-and-a-half years after the worst-ever terrorist attack on American soil.

On NBC's East Coast affiliates, the announcement of an impending presidential address cut into the final moments of "Celebrity Apprentice," starring would-be Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. (Take that, you combed-over bigot.) Obama did not appear for another hour. After he spoke -- confirming that bin Laden had been killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan, by Joint Special Operation Command forces working with the CIA -- NBC and CBS returned to previously scheduled programming. ABC and the cable news channels stuck with the story. "The minute I heard that the president was doing an announcement at 10:30 and breaking into TV, I sort of guessed, I thought, 'They got bin Laden,'" New York Sen. Chuck Schumer told New York's WABC. "They wouldn't break into TV for any other reason."

Fox News Channel somehow managed to deliver comprehensible audio over the collective, bloody grinding of teeth, even when relaying a statement from ex-President George W. Bush congratulating Obama: "This momentous achievement marks a victory for America, for people who seek peace around the world, and for all those who lost loved ones on September 11, 2001."

"This will probably prove to be one of the most significant, if not the most significant accomplishments of the president," NBC News White House correspondent Chuck Todd told anchor Brian Williams, in a bloc of live MSNBC coverage that displaced a taped program titled "Sex Slaves UK."

On ABC, Debra Burlingame, the sister of Charles Burlingame, pilot of the hijacked flight that struck the Pentagon, told anchor George Stephanopoulos, "This has been a long time coming. It's been rough because it pretty much dominated my life, all of these national security issues. And we're not out of the woods yet, George, but this is really big."


So big that after a certain point, a New York-based TV columnist can no longer sit in his living room, typing on a laptop while stealing glances at a TV. Next stop, ground zero.


The Cortlandt Street R train stop deposits riders on the perimeter of ground zero, in front of the Century 21 department store on Church Street, meters away from a chain link fence festooned with banners detailing the splendors that will appear on the former World Trade Center site: Freedom Tower. Reflecting pool. High-end retail shops.

At first the street seemed unnervingly quiet. Yes, it was 1:30 Monday morning at the the start of a work week, but this was supposed to be V-E Day all over again, at least in theory. Where were all the people?

Two blocks away, as it turned out: Klieg lights. Waving flags. The distant roar of a crowd's cheer building and cresting:


How many people were there? Thousands, I'm told. 

They'd stuck bunches of red and white roses into the fence and taped up signs: "Thanks, Barack!" "USA WINNING." There was a scrawny young man in a red, white and blue top hat, and a tearful man with a hand-lettered sign that read, "He's dead," and a man holding an iPhone with a viewscreen spelling out, in huge letters, "OBAMA 1 OSAMA 0." One woman came dressed in an Old Glory jumpsuit complete with hoodie.

"It feels like the world's guiltiest criminal is now gone from this earth," said Eric Brehm of Columbus, Ohio, who was visiting New York with his girlfriend, Megan Sander. "I'm happy for the people of New York and happy for the world." Sander recalled watching the second plane hit on TV almost a decade ago. "My boss' sister was a flight attendant on that plane," she said.

A number of celebrants wore American flags as capes. "It's an amazing night," said one flag-caped celebrant, Juan Rodriguez of Cliffside Park, N.J. "I feel like I can breathe again." He said the flag around his shoulders once belonged to his grandfather, who served in the Pacific during WWII.

Archie Archipolo, who grew up on the Lower East Side and has lived in lower Manhattan for over a decade, recalled the madness in this neighborhood nine-and-a-half years ago. "The Red Cross set up a station with bottles of water. There were tanks in the streets."

Archipolo was wearing a VFW cap that belonged to his grandfather, who served in the 1st Division of the U.S. Army during World War II. He was there with his girlfriend, Danielle Cristiani, and her godson Max Sperling, a teenager who was 5 when the towers fell. "It was like a war zone down here," Sperling recalled. "But it was so quiet that first night."

"We lost friends, cousins that day," Archipolo said. "Everyone did. Now I think we're on the way back. But we have to be careful. It could happen again any time. It might not be as big as it was before. It could be some guys strapped with C-4."

A young Navy officer in dress blues and a sailor in white joined a drunken civilian teenager atop a lamppost at the corner of Church and Vesey and led the crowd in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. 


What didn't come through in the TV feeds and newspaper stories was the peculiar character of the crowd: half in-the-moment, half outside of it.

There were engaged, ecstatic -- and over time, increasingly tipsy -- revelers. There were news vans and trucks with broadcast-quality cameras and bright lights and rumbling generators. There were roving reporters with notepads and hand-held digital tape recorders. I saw people collecting video and audio with their iPhones. One woman circled the outer edge of the crowd, holding her iPad slightly above her head, getting a smooth tracking shot around the edges of the gathering and double-checking her framing by glancing up at the screen.

In some sectors of the designated celebration zone -- a two-block area ringed by cops and barricades -- witnesses to history appeared to outnumber participants.

Then again, the distinction between participants might be a false one. Nowadays just about everybody has the ability to record his or her life at any time, for any reason, via digital stills, video, audio. And there was a whole lot of recording going on last night. Three young men in kilts climbed on top of a bank of pay phones and gave an impromptu bagpipe concert; the strobe-flash illumination of shutterbugs was so intense that they might as well have been performing on the floor of a disco. There were people taking video and still photos of cops, construction workers, Marines, sailors and civilians wrapped in American flags or carrying signs. There were people taking pictures of the people taking pictures. And there were people taking pictures of the people taking pictures of the people taking pictures.

Clouds of pot smoke occasionally wafted through the scene, and as the celebration wore on, it became harder to move through the throng without accidentally kicking an empty beer bottle and sending it clattering down the street.

If you stood back and squinted at the crowd, hundreds of rectangles of electronic light seemed to bob like embers on a dark wave. People were showing each other their iPhones, sharing Twitter feeds, Facebook updates, uploaded and downloaded photos, YouTube clips, streaming video from CNN. They were discussing the coverage, repeating what they'd heard, saying what they did or didn't believe.

"They should show pictures of the raid, pictures of the body, a picture, something," a man holding a bottle of water told a man holding a tall can of Budweiser. "They have to show proof that he's dead, that it's him they shot, otherwise the tinfoil hats come out."

And yet despite the anxiety and intense self-consciousness, there was a bustling energy to the gathering, with undertones of joy, relief and hope -- plus a brute satisfaction than somebody finally tracked the son of a bitch down and put one in his brain. Songs and chants erupted and faded, some merely patriotic, others belligerent: "The Star-Spangled Banner." "America the Beautiful." "You ess AY! You ess AY" "Nah nah NAH nah!/Nah nah NAH nah!/Hey HEY-YYYYY/Good BYE!" One especially wasted young man lunged at a TV camera and yelled, "Iran is next! I don't care what anybody says! Iran is next!"

Jonathan Jirack, formerly of Pittsburgh, left his apartment near ground zero around 2 a.m. bearing a hand-lettered sign that read, "We cheer for [PEACE SYMBOL], not death." He walked through the crowd for hours holding it over his head. "I saw the gathering on TV and I thought, 'I need to go down there and try to put an asterisk on the event,'" he said. "I understand the jubilation. I can feel it. But a lot of people are watching this thing on TV, and I'm afraid what we're putting out there can be manipulated or misinterpreted."

"That's noble," said Kevin Caslava, a San Diego-born writer who has lived in New York off and on for a decade, indicating Jirack's sign. "But you've also got people here chanting, 'Fuck Osama,' so it's not like what you're describing is the only subtext out here."

They argued politely about the sign -- Jirack insisting that most of the people here were more relieved and happy than bloodthirsty, even though it might not come across that way on TV, and Caslava was taking a more skeptical view.

"Look, I get it," Caslava said. "I feel a deep-rooted satisfaction, but also a sense of, 'Should I be cheering because a man got shot?' I've traveled a lot, and I've met people who argued for bin Laden as a freedom fighter, as somebody who had reasons for what he did. When you hear them talk, intellectually you understand the reasons, even though you have a visceral hatred of what happened in this country, right here on our own soil. Deep inside us, there's a very strong voice for war. You try to be rational, but there's that voice inside that says, 'Fuck this.' That's the voice I'm hearing here, mostly."

"And," he added, "when you're watching news from Middle Eastern countries and you see people holding up signs in Arabic, how do you know what they're saying? If you can't read Arabic, you can't know. You might think what's on that Arabic sign was a message of peace when it's actually something like, 'Fuck all y'all!' How do you know that somebody in another country where they don't speak English won't look at your sign and just not understand it at all? Or misinterpret it?"

"That's why I put the peace symbol on there," Jirack said.


Back in Brooklyn again after a brief subway ride in an R train car filled with mostly sleeping people and other awake persons -- fellow pilgrims to ground zero who thought the timing of Obama's announcement was a bit too convenient, that maybe the president delayed the raid, or delayed announcing the news, until tonight because it would put a lid on the celebrations.

"They were building up to this raid for weeks," a man said. "He didn't give the go-ahead last night. Why? Because if he'd done it last night, Saturday night, around the same time as tonight, the word would have gone out when half the people in America were already half-drunk, and then what would the TV have shown? It would have been insanity. So he waits until late Sunday night. Everybody's happy, but they're tired. They want to celebrate, but they also gotta go to work in the morning."

"Not everything is a conspiracy," another rider said.

"They're very precise in how they manage the country," the first rider said. "They got shaping P.R. down to an exact science."

Home at last.  The kids were zonked out. On CNN, Steve Bernstein, whose brother Billy died on 9/11 when Cantor-Fitzgerald's World Trade Center offices went up in smoke, said that when he heard about bin Laden, "I felt like my brother could finally rest in peace. I felt the same way."

Then the newscast cut to correspondent Ted Rowlands reporting live from "a hookah lounge in Anaheim, California" at 2 a.m. Pacific. His topic: the reaction of Muslim-Americans. He sidled over to one side of the club and approached a couple of attractive young women. "Leila," he said, extending his microphone to one of them, "as a Persian-American, give it to me: What is your reaction to Osama bin Laden being killed?"

"We're elated that someone who is the biggest symbol of terrorism is finally gone now," Leila said. "And I can't wait to see his picture now, to be honest with you."

Rowlands led the camera crew toward the back of the club, where the owner was waiting for him. Ninety minutes earlier, Rowlands explained, the owner -- a U.S. armed forces veteran -- had been the victim of a drive-by egging. There was still a splotch of yolk on his shirt.

"This is Mohammed, the establishment's owner," Rowlands explained. "He was actually hit in the neck by an egg."

"Good job, U.S. Army, and Marines, everybody, Obama, we're glad that's over with," Mohammed said. 

Rowlands followed up: "Does it help? Do you think this is the beginning of the end of discrimination here in America, or no, is it an ongoing thing?"

"It's gonna be an ongoing thing as long as we have a lot of the biased media and ignorant people out here," Mohammed said. "Hopefully, this brings a little closure ... We're happy that he's dead, we're happy that he's gone."

I glanced down at my laptop. In my Twitter feed was a link to a wire story saying that Osama bin Laden's corpse had already been buried at sea.

By Matt Zoller Seitz

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