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Live From Ground Zero

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It looked to be a typical Sunday night. But as I was settling down to prepare for final exams, my friend nearly broke my door down.

"BIN LADEN'S DEAD!" These three words took me a minute to process; I hadn't been expecting -- or even thinking about expecting -- to hear them, ever. Textbooks discarded, we sat riveted to CNN, waiting for President Obama to tell us more. Shock and a growing sense of elation reigned supreme, and then after the speech, unfamiliar emotions flooded over. Jubilation. Pride. Catharsis. And most unfamiliar of all, victory. Then came the realization that these emotions weren't limited to our group clustered in front of the TV; people were sticking their heads out of their windows and screaming in triumph all over campus. Wanting to share this moment with more than just Columbia, my friend and I ran to the 116th subway stop to head down to Ground Zero, calling and emailing others as we went. Ten minutes later, a crowd of 50 Columbians was standing on the subway platform singing the Star Spangled Banner, attracting the attention of campus media and the New York Times, which reported, "On 114th street in Manhattan, by the Columbia University campus, students spilled into the streets singing 'God Bless America.'"

2011-05-03-CUDEms.jpg
Photo by Columbia Spectator.

Last night, when U.S. Navy Seals finally succeeded in killing Osama bin Laden, the students on campus experienced a euphoria we had never known before. We came of age in the era of terrorism, with attacks and fear dominating the headlines for our entire politically-conscious lives. We were used to setbacks, to heartbreaks, to dead ends -- the seemingly endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan a constant reminder of an invisible, mutable, and often ill-chosen (as in Iraq) enemy. In this "War on Terror," it seemed that there could be no victory. And last night, for the first time in our lives, we experienced national victory. When bin Laden attacked us on 9/11, he changed the course of history and American politics forever. Fear dominated our national discourse; suddenly, our collective destiny as a nation was out of our control.

Fear was cathartically banished at Ground Zero last night. Thousands of New Yorkers gathered there, shouting, chanting and singing in celebration of this long-delayed victory over bin Laden and al Qaeda. We recognized that his death may not make a difference in the day-to-day operation of al Qaeda or instances of terrorism, but it didn't matter. It was a triumph, a reminder in no uncertain terms that, "the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice." And so we celebrated, we hugged, and we chanted U-S-A! until our throats were sore.

It was a strange experience for people so often critical of the government, especially military policy, to be out in the streets waving flags, wearing red, white and blue, and kissing marines as though it were V-J day. About 30 Columbians at Ground Zero were members of the Columbia Democrats, including nearly the entire Executive Board -- many people who have never cheered a death or military action in their lives. Both I and everyone I talked to was experiencing the same cognitive dissonance; it feels incredibly strange and a little perverse for a death to bring so much unabashed joy. But at the same time, we were simply unabashedly, unapologetically joyful. Whatever our feelings on presidential policy or the wars, we are glad that the mass murderer who destroyed so many lives and dominated recent American history is finally dead at the hands of American fighters. Our experience at Ground Zero was the personification of the unity President Obama talked about in his speech; we celebrated, not as Democrats or Republicans, but as a united American people.

Something else happened during impromptu Ground Zero gathering. Somewhere after the twelfth chorus of the "Star Spangled Banner" and "America the Beautiful," the crowd began to celebrate more than just this amazing military victory. With smartphones aiding memory, we recited the Preamble to the Constitution and the beginning of the Declaration of Independence, lingering on:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Then Lieutenant Dan Choi, the openly gay soldier who was discharged under and led the fight against Don't Ask, Don't Tell, climbed a lamppost. The crowd went wild, and the smiling lieutenant led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance, with emotion and emphasis poured into "liberty and justice for all." We were no longer simply celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden, we were celebrating America, not just as it is, but as we want to be and as we will create it: with liberty and justice for all.