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May 8, 2011

Alan Chin: Through the Champagne Spray – Report from Ground Zero upon bin Laden’s Death

Like the rest of the nation and the world last Sunday night, May 1, I was initially mystified by the announcement that President Obama would speak late in the evening on an issue of “utmost national security.” It couldn’t be an attack or catastrophe, because something like that would already be known and reported. Speculation was rampant, but mercifully brief. More than 56 million Americans watched on live television as the President gave the first report of the killing of Osama Bin Laden by a commando raid on a house in Pakistan. Within minutes, people started gathering at the World Trade Center site, Ground Zero.

They waved American flags were and copiously poured champagne in a spontaneous explosion of triumphant celebration. Ten years ago I had stood at this very corner of Church and Vesey Streets as the towers burned and exploded. I had gone on to cover the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and have seen how they devolved into varying forms of failure and stalemate. So part of me shared the sense of relief and justice that swept through this crowd of several thousand who came out after midnight, and lingered until the dawn.

But another part of me could not help but be repelled and disgusted by such bombastic display. Not only that, but it has become so hackneyed: People sang the “Star-spangled Banner” and “America The Beautiful” — and then ran out of patriotic songs to sing because they don’t know any others — and the aggressive chant of “U.S.A! U.S.A!” suggested violent anger more than actual pride. One sharp wag retorted with ironic mockery by saying, “Ooo-sha! Ooo-sha!” rather than pronouncing each letter. This young woman was tossed about in mosh-pit style, behavior befitting a college fraternity, and it struck me how young they all were. Most of these celebrants were children, ten or eleven years old, during the 9/11 attack, and what could move them to be so demonstrative now?!?

The new Freedom Tower is finally under construction and rising by the day. Is it an appropriate backdrop for this hooligan who climbed up onto the lamppost and demonstrated his circus abilities? No matter how just, and that’s a question that has only become cloudier with each new detail revealed of an unarmed Bin Laden, of minimal resistance, etc., no matter how just killing this most wanted villain might be, celebrating that death so frivolously, after ten long years of war, smacks of poor taste and depressing ignorance.

Some people were more somber. A minute of silence was called when the crowd initially congregated, and hundreds of people stopped screaming for a long moment of sober reflection. One man said, “we need a sailor and a nurse,” evoking Alfred Eisenstaedt’s Times Square photograph of VJ Day in 1945 and expressing the palpable hope that closure might finally be at hand. But such subtler sentiments, I fear, got easily lost in the din and euphoria of nationalist excess.

–Alan Chin


All photographs made in the early morning hours of May 2, 2011, at the World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan, New York City.

About the Photographer

Alan Chin

Alan Chin was born and raised in New York City’s Chinatown. Alan Chin was born and raised in New York City’s Chinatown. Since 1996, he has worked in China, the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, and throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. In the US, Alan has explored the South, following the historic trail of the civil rights movement and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, covered multiple presidential campaigns, and the Occupy Wall Street movement. He is a contributing photographer to Newsweek/Daily Beast and The New York Times, a member of Facing Change: Documenting America (FCDA), and an editor at You can see all Alan's posts for BagNews here.

  • Jeffrey Goldfarb

    The war on terrorism is over! I was surprised by the reaction to the killing, and opened an ongoing discussion among informed commentators, ,

    Now, upon reflection, I am convinced that they had it right. Let’s declare victory and bring the troops home.

  • Serr8d

    But another part of me could not help but be repelled and disgusted by such bombastic display.

    You’d better check in with your fellow New Yorker Maureen
    Dowd. Before she began her predictable (and given the NYT readership, expected) vitrolic attacks on those who aren’t in lock step with NYT LeftLibProgg ideology, she wrote thusly…

    “I don’t want closure. There is no closure after tragedy.

    “I want memory, and justice, and revenge.

    “When you’re dealing with a mass murderer who bragged about incinerating
    thousands of Americans and planned to kill countless more, that seems
    like the only civilized and morally sound response.

    We briefly celebrated one of the few clear-cut military victories we’ve
    had in a long time, a win that made us feel like Americans again — smart
    and strong and capable of finding our enemies and striking back at them
    without getting trapped in multitrillion-dollar Groundhog Day

    Something about these fiery redheads who will just as soon slap away at Proggs displaying bleeding-heart ‘liberal guilt’ as at her rightist foes, you have to admire that. For what it’s worth.

    • Cleotis

      Military victory? Clear cut? Sweet Jeebus!

  • Serr8d


    This new ‘mention’ feature works or no?

  • Dave Mclane

    One might think that “such subtler sentiments” might include the loss of the family and friends of who-knows-how-many ordinary people who died in Iraq and Afghanistan as “collateral damage.”

    Don’t cha think so …

  • Just asking

    Who has killed the most innocent people? Bush? Obama? Osama?

  • Anonymous

    These young people have a cartoon-level understanding of geopolitics, and who can blame them? That’s what they grew up with. Even people who should know better speak in terms of “good guys” and “bad guys” within ambiguous contexts. Who are the good guys? The people we side with. Who are the bad guys? The people who oppose us.

    Shifting alliances mean that good guys sometimes turn into bad guys; and vice versa. There are no gray areas. Osama was a good guy when he opposed the Soviets in Afghanistan, but he became irredeemably a bad guy when he supported the Taliban against us.

    Bad guys have no rights. Hanging them is too good for them. Justice is served by blowing them up like some gory video game. Could we have taken bin Laden alive? Why would we do a cockamamie thing like that? He’d only hire lawyers and get off like O J Simpson.

    People actually talk like this. It’s no joke.

  • Dave Mclane

    I have my doubts that victory will be declared as how could the newly re-minted pax America continue without its ~400 overseas bases?

  • Alan Chin

    @DennisQ:disqus : You’re so right, and it makes me so saddened by the whole spectacle. Yet, we all grew up with national myths, and I for one don’t have a problem with that. George Washington cut down the cherry tree and could not tell a lie, and so on…what bothers me is how the discourse has become so crass and utterly banal. Contrary to stereotypes that @Serr8d:disqus sometimes likes to bait us with about “LeftLibProgg ideology,” I, too, have an American flag or too. And hung one out my window for a time back in 2001. Because I am a New Yorker, and it was our city that was attacked, and so on. But honoring and respecting a certain patriotism should NOT be equated with bashing people over the head with it. Is this a fine point? Sure. Precisely why “cartoon-level understanding” is so shameful. And so I DO blame them. Gathering for a vigil, even for joyous “sailors and nurses” celebration is one thing. Behaving like hooligans is another.

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