Sunday night, thousands of Americans stood outside the White House gates and cheered as if we had just won an Olympic hockey game.
‘”USA!” they chanted. “USA!” They belted out “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “God Bless America.” They waved flags, raised cans of beer and hooted and hollered like the spill-out crowds at sports bars.
From a distance, before I saw any of their faces, the carnival atmosphere struck me as unseemly. Such an undignified response for a country that has endured so much because of an elusive terrorist who hated America.
Months from the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks — and thousands of American lives later — Osama bin Laden finally had been hunted down and killed. This was a moment for reflection, for grappling with the complicated jumble of grief, relief and gratitude.
Did these celebrants remember our collective rage over those videos of Muslims dancing in the streets on Sept. 11, 2001?
The cameras zoomed in, and I found my answer in their young, unlined faces. For the most part, these were the children of 9/11, the grown kids whose worlds became instantly scarier and more fragile after the twin towers fell, over and over, on their parents’ television sets.
Almost immediately, I thought of Morissa Freiberg, who turned 15 on 9/11. I had interviewed her in 2002 for the anniversary of the attacks. On 9/11, she first saw the footage of the attacks on a television screen in her English class. She saw people jumping out of the buildings. Someone said “terrorists.” Someone else said thousands had died.
She spent much of the rest of that day in front of the family TV, holding on to her mother and sobbing.
A year later, Morissa told me she knew her birthday would never again be just her special day, but she was unsure about how much the terrorist attacks had affected her life and her country.
“I’ve only lived for 16 years. Maybe in 10 years, I’ll realize how much it’s changed my country. Maybe in 20 years, I’ll look at offi ce buildings and think, ‘Wow, we used to build them so differently when I was a kid.’ And maybe then I’ll see how it’s changed me.”
This week, I tracked down Morissa, who is now 24. She’s a graduate student, and she teaches Hebrew. A social justice activist, she has traveled three times to Israel, where the threat of a terrorist attack is part of every family’s daily life. Most recently, she was about a mile away from the volatile Gaza Strip, volunteering at a playground built into a bomb shelter.
Morissa refuses to be a prisoner to her fears, which are always there, she said. And she did not celebrate bin Laden’s death.
“I’m not an eye-for-an-eye kind of person,” she said. “I wish we could have captured him, talked to him.”
When I asked what she would have wanted to ask him, she didn’t hesitate.
“I’d want to know why he hated us so much. I would have asked, ‘Why do you turn to violence to solve problems?’”
She paused. “You know, I’m really hoping my generation can move toward one human race,” she said. “I really believe we can.”
As for her birthday, she was right when she told me nine years ago that it never would be the same.
“Whenever someone sees my birth date — at the airport, for example — they usually say, ‘Oh, my goodness, 9/11!’”
She’s made her peace with that.
“My birthday is a day to remember all those innocent Americans who lost their lives.”
She still opens presents, still celebrates the passage of time. But after the 9/11 attacks, a new family birthday ritual was born.
Every Sept. 11, Morissa and her mother light a special candle. It’s red, white and blue.
“In memory,” Morissa said, softly. “In memory.”
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and an essayist for Parade magazine. ©2011 Creators