On a gorgeous September day almost ten years ago, I had just started my morning as the editor-in-chief of an upstate newspaper when one of my reporters told me a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Five minutes later, he told me about the second one, and I knew everything was about to change. Every impulse in me in a reporter told me to drive the 300 miles and be in the thick of it, but I had to manage everything, including an afternoon edition, so I sent out someone else.
Now, I finally strapped on a camera and headed for Ground Zero, but I was met with a site of raucous celebration, not despair. Osama is dead; we even have the body so there won’t be Osama sighting for the next 50 years, and New Yorkers were in the mood to celebrate. Given that it was 1 a.m., most of the ones really ready to celebrate in public were the college kids who were ready to go anyway, which ensured the atmosphere would be of revelry, not contemplation, though we were among the graves of Osama victims.
But if any city is ready for an impromptu rally at 1 a.m., it’s this one. And I’m glad to call it my home.
UPDATE: I wasn’t there to do video, but here’s a quick one I took to just get a sense of the crowd. Also, my friends at B&H Photo asked how I did this technically, given that it was 1 a.m. under low and very tricky lighting. Images have very little editing as befits photojournalism, but I knew I’d have to capture action in near-darkness, so I brought my “night vision” set-up: Two Nikon D3s‘s with the Nikon 24mm f/1.4, 35mm f/1.4, and Sigma 85mm f/1.4. Under sodium-vapor streetlights, white balance gets truly wacky, so I used Nikon Capture NX2 to process, as it has the best white balance control of any program I’ve used.
Otherwise, the main skills were things I learned in years as a newspaper photographer, such as how to politely elbow your way through a surging crowd and get where the action is.
Students, including a girl on her 21st birthday, use street poles to show their patriotism.
Revelers spray champagne onto the crowds below
After spraying the crowd, he enjoys some of the champagne for himself
Who knew New Yorkers had so many spare flags?
And the crowd goes wild for the cameras
A woman walks past a one-man candlelight vigil
Nothing says pride like face paint
The crowd chants for peace
Marching past the 9/11 memorial
Scaling Mount Patriotism…
“Lady, do NOT go up there! You are wearing a DRESS!”
City worker takes it in…
Moments like these are more important than car hoods
The only time I have ever seen a New Yorker happy to be stuck in traffic.
The sign of the night…
Let your colonial flag fly…
Tossed toilet paper hangs above as the crowd surges
Texting in the USA…
I can’t get enough of these guys.
Carried above the crowd
UPDATE: There’s a lot going on in the comments, some of it I find quite distasteful. Here’s my view as someone who was there, in it if not of it:
I would prefer Osama have come quietly, but, he didn’t. I don’t really trust these events to be related truthfully given the value of propaganda, but the whole “firing back and using a wife as a human shield” thing, if true, makes me pretty comfortable with their decision to fire back.
One thing I was VERY proud of. Nowhere in all of the NYC revelry that I saw in person or on the news was there the scarcest bit of anti-Muslim sentiment. A guy with an “I’m a Muslim, don’t panic” t-shirt was cheered everywhere he went. No one denigrated or desecrated Islam except for OBL himself. (Online and in some other parts of the country, yes, but that’s not what these celebrations were about)
What’s hard to understand if you weren’t there is that there’s a very simple reason for the atmosphere … it was 1 a.m. These were 90 percent college kids who decided to hook a left instead of heading to the bars. No hatred, no burning people in effigy, just good news meaning an excuse to hang from a light pole on a day where the cops would cheer you on for doing so. Does it really make sense to set a car on fire because your team won a basketball game? Sure, if you listen to your id.
I didn’t think it was the tone I would have wanted, but the more I see people give high-handed criticism of a bunch of people gathering in the streets just to sing songs and share a sense of glad togetherness, the more protective I feel.
I mean, dude. I saw a hippie go up to a military offer and say “Do you mind if I just … give you a hug?” And they hugged. I saw police officers laughing gleefully at people committing (victimless) crimes, yelling “just don’t get hurt!” And 400 people cheering on a Muslim guy waving an American flag I saw New Yorkers not caring about a traffic jam. No hatred, but a sense that we did something right, something we said we’d do, and brought him to justice. (And if the raid went down the way they said, it seemed to have been handled justly).
The atmosphere was joyous and inclusive. When someone shouted “Hooray for the troops!” everyone cheered, then chanted “Bring them home!” The chant merged into “End the wars!” and someone responded with their own chant: “Don’t get greedy!” Everyone laughed. This is how it felt. While the wars aren’t funny, while death isn’t funny, and while the people here took their convictions seriously, even when they opposed each others’, you laugh when anything happens that relaxes your tension just a little bit. You put 1,000 people together who are happy about anything, and it becomes a party.
Do you think none of the celebrations would have happened if he’d come along quietly? If the announcement was “We’ve got him!”
I think there would be countless debates later about what to do with the guy, but I think there would have been just as many people in the streets, and if so, then they weren’t really there cheering for death, and sanctimoniousness must be tempered.
We did the conga when Hitler died, but we also went out into Times Square and kissed nurses when Hirohito … didn’t die.
Personally, I am cheering one of the most successful, precise military actions in history. It would have been easy, but terrible and a disaster, to just send in a Predator and destroy the place. We finally made a series of right, difficult decisions after a series of incredibly competent intelligence gathering. I mean … incredible effective government decisions? Incredibly competent intelligence agencies? And it all worked together to absolutely minimize any impact on civilians? That’s a stopped clock worth cheering.
In short, Americans aren’t particularly obsessed with death — we’re absolutely obsessed with WINNING. And in asymmetric warfare, the events of May 1, whether he had come quietly or not, is as close to a win as we can possibly come.