My 16th birthday was September 10, 2001. That evening, my mother gathered my two younger sisters and me on the patio for a quick birthday picture, as a hazy sun set over the New Jersey sky.
It was just hours before my father boarded a commuter train headed northbound the next morning, getting off mere miles from where the World Trade Center's twin towers would fall later that day.
The picture still hangs in my parents’ home. When I see the photo, I am jolted into remembering a world that existed before 9/11. But for my youngest sister Marykate, only 9 at the time, there is no memory of the America that existed in a world of relative peace.
I knew the politics of our complicated world—as much as any young high school student could—before September 11, 2001. I vaguely remembered the swift U.S. victory in the Gulf War, and recall having difficulty grasping how something as strange-sounding as communism could ever be a serious threat.
But all Marykate has known is a world dominated by the knowledge that one evil man, thousands of miles away, could deliver horrific destruction upon the U.S., killing thousands of civilians in an event unlike anything our parents or grandparents had ever seen.
So when news broke late Sunday that Osama bin Laden had been killed and the images of college students gathering outside of the White House were broadcast around the world, I thought of Marykate.
She’s now a freshman at George Washington University, living blocks from the White House. By her own admission, she’s not the most “political” of people, so I assumed she wouldn’t be one of the impromptu celebrators. I thought she might not even know about bin Laden’s death until the following day.
I was wrong. After sending her a text message about the students outside the White House, I got a surprising response:
My mistake was thinking about the death of bin Laden as purely politics. It wasn't a win or a loss for Democrats or Republicans. Being a reporter in Washington, I immediately focused on it that way, trying to determine who would gain and who wouldn’t. But it was Marykate who reminded me that this was something all of America could share, if only for a brief moment.
Marykate said she heard “USA!” chants from outside her dorm room as she studied for finals. After discovering the news of bin Laden’s death through her Facebook friends’ updates, she met up with fellow students to go to the White House.
“It was something everyone could be happy about,” Marykate said. “We all grew up through it.”
A fellow freshman at GWU, John Kelley, said he immediately had an urge to head to the White House after bin Laden’s death was announced.
Kelley, a 19-year-old from Caldwell, N.J., a commuter town about 20 miles from New York City, said he spent the weeks after the September 11 attacks attending funerals of the family friends who had died at Ground Zero.
“I haven’t sung ‘God Bless America,’ as many times since then,” said Kelley of last night’s celebration at the White House. “It was an opportunity to rejoice, to be a part of history.”
When Kelley heard news networks announce bin Laden’s death, he went weak at the knees.
“I was close to tears,” he said. “We have waited for so long for this. I called one of my best friends, who lost a brother in the towers, and told him I loved him and that I hoped he could find that peace now.”
After that, Kelley, an international affairs major who said the events of September 11 forced him to acknowledge the world beyond his immediate surroundings, took to running down the hallways of his dorm, gathering people to head to the White House.
“It was a moment of pure joy and emotion,” Kelley said. “It’s a momentous occasion for our generation.”
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