Sunday night, when celebrations erupted in front of the White House, I suddenly realized I was on the other side of a generation gap. It was a quick bike ride down to the festivities, but I couldn’t go. I felt like a bad journalist, ducking out on what would be a huge, momentous, strange experience. It was also personal. I was blocks from the Trade Center when the towers fell. Shouldn’t I be at the White House singing in victory when bin Laden fell?
On Tuesday, a friend sent me an article written by a 9/11 widow and activist Kristen Breitweiser that helped explain my reticence. Of the days after Sept. 11, she writes, “They showed the buildings still burning juxtaposed against young Arabs celebrating in the streets. That disturbing vision left me incredulous; it was forever emblazoned on my psyche.”
The images of flag-waving, U.S.-chanting, ATV-riding, gun-firing celebrations have left Breitweiser — and me — with a strange, sorrowful feeling. “It breaks my heart to witness young Americans cheer any death — even the death of a horrible, evil, murderous person — like it is some raucous tailgate party on a college campus,” she writes.
And it felt like that because, on Sunday night, it was mostly college students pouring into the streets, shouting and celebrating the death of a man. “But they were only 10 when the towers fell!” I thought. “What could they know of terror?”
How misguided I was. I grew up ten years before them, with a lingering dread of the Cold War, but only just. It was an idyllic time, in retrospect: There was a recession; we survived. There was a Gulf War; we handily won.
For the children of the generation behind me, there was so much loss; so much uncertainty in their lives. This was brought into sharp focus by a Time article published Tuesday: “The Interrupted Reading.” Tim Padgett spoke to the schoolchildren who had a front row seat to history when then President George W. Bush was told about the World Trade Center while reading “The Pet Goat,” to their second-grade class.
When a “sudden, devastated change,” came over Bush’s face, “Lazaro Dubrocq's heart started racing... He assumed they were all in big trouble — with no less than the Commander-in-Chief — but he wasn't quite sure why,” Padgett writes.
Bush’s behavior — finishing up the story, waiting ten minutes before leaving the school room — was hugely criticized, but the now-teenagers praise his actions. “I think he was trying to protect us," Dubrocq. The fear and the anger still lingers with the children, nearly ten years later. In their 7-year-old world, they had gone from hearing about a pet goat to hearing about a mass murderer in little more than an instance.
The Post’s Alexandra Petri, herself a Millennial, writes “Sept. 11 was when we lost something. Not innocence, exactly. It wasn’t simply the first dawning of tragedy in our lives. It was ... the one salient incident that indelibly altered the way we saw safety, privacy, probability. It crystallized our characteristic, semi-contradictory generational attitude: optimistic fatalism.”
The death of bin Laden does not mean that the world is suddenly safe, that those fears are wiped cleaned, but I can better understand their moment of jubilation. I can also, in a way, understand the young Arabs celebrating in the streets after 9/11. They, too, have grown up with heavier burdens than I did on their shoulders — poverty, little education, and a host of other issues. They were young and they saw the attack as some sort of victory — as devestatingly sad as that is.
I don’t mean to imply that only a younger generation should be allowed their cheers. We are each reeling with sorrow and joy in our own ways. The Post’s Ruth Marcus admitted her ‘grim exuberance’ in a column Tuesday, recalling the Jewish story of God parting the Red Sea to let the people of Israel pass and then closing the water over the pursuing Egyptian army:
The Talmud teaches that when the angels began to sing in praise, God silenced them, saying, “My handiwork is drowning in the sea, and you want to sing?” Yet Moses and the Israelites broke into song after the crossing, praising God — and apparently drawing no rebuke — for casting Pharaoh’s chariots and captains into the sea. Humans are not angels. And even angels, it seems, succumb to the desire for vengeance.
I may not join in the chorus, but sing away.