Last summer while I was playing tennis with a friend on an Arlington public court, a troop of elementary-school kids took over the surrounding courts for a group tennis lesson. These things don’t often bode well when you’re trying to get in a competitive match — errant tennis balls and highly vocal children can be rather distracting — but they were a pretty focused bunch so I didn’t pay much attention.
While I was retrieving one of my own errant balls, I did overhear a group of boys who were hanging by the fence awaiting their turn. One of them was asking his friends, ”Do you know about 9/11?” and then proceeding into a tale of crashing planes and buildings.
I imagine that the idea of 9/11 to those kids is akin to my own childhood idea of the Vietnam War. I was born in 1967, so that war is a hazy part of the backdrop of my ’70s upbringing, an event I won’t ever think of in the same way my parents do, simply because they experienced it and I did not. My ideas of Vietnam were shaped more by movies like Platoon than any actual memories of what had happened.
Obviously, I’m thinking of this because of the Sunday announcement that Osama bin Laden had been found and killed. My nephew, born a year before the attack, will remember the celebrations of the death of bin Laden but not the terrible event that triggered it. I imagine that, like the boys on the tennis court, his interpretation of 9/11 will be far more cinematic and exciting than it was or really should be.
I keep in my office three things from that time: the Sept. 12, 2001, editions of The Washington Post, USA Today and Time magazine. I don’t keep them out in the open — not only would that feel ghoulish, I just couldn’t bear to be reminded of that terror every day. But I can’t bring myself to box them away, either. In some ways, I fear forgetting.
In that Time, there is a two-page zoomed-in photo of the top stories of one of the burning towers as people plunged through the air, with a caption: ”A man and a woman held hands on the way down.” More than the fear that gripped downtown D.C., more than the repeating video loop of the collapse of the towers, more than the eerie quiet of our entire city as that day unfolded, that one photo shapes my own memory of the horror and despair. Ten years later, it still brings me to tears.
That’s why I’ve been so deeply ambivalent about the celebrations that followed the president’s announcement. There is certainly a part of me that wants to see retribution and revenge — even though neither can ever truly be had — and wants to rejoice at the news of bin Laden’s death. But another (I hope better) part of me recoils at celebrating death with the same exuberance you’d bring to a New Year’s Eve party.
As I said, I’m ambivalent because for the most part I’m loath to tell others how they should experience this particular moment. But this death brings me no joy, just a grim happiness.
You can reach Sean Bugg at or follow him on Twitter, @seanbugg.