Gregory Rodriguez from ground zero: America reboots
Los Angeles Times columnist Gregory Rodriguez was in New York City on Sunday. After President Obama's speech, he headed for Lower Manhattan:
When I got to ground zero at 10 minutes past midnight Sunday night, a few hundred people, mostly young men, were hooting and hollering in the direction of two kids waving a 3' x 4' American flag with a black-and-white image of Marilyn Monroe emblazoned on it. Scores of people were thrusting their camera phones in the air taking pictures of the swirling crowd, and complete strangers were shooting one another friendly glances.
When asked what they made of the scene, the people I talked to tossed out adjectives like "amazing" and "crazy." But there didn't seem to be a unifying theme or common rationale for their presence. The mood flip-flopped between triumphalism and gratitude, pride and vengeance, carnival and sports rally, and, as an afterthought, political demonstration.
The crowd shared almost none of the president's solemnity. I didn't have a problem with people celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden, but the sounds of vuvuzela and the collegiate taunts "Na-na- na- na, na-na-na-na, hey hey hey, go-o-odbye!" made the gathering more like a raucous frat party than anything else.
One thirtysomething man in a baseball cap yelled out twice, "Can we honor the fallen?" But no one paid any attention. A 27-year-old black man milling near the fringes of the crowd told me he couldn't "scream in jubilation" knowing what had happened there 10 years ago. "This is sacred ground," he said.
No leaders emerged. Isolated cells launched into chants of "USA! USA!" or anti-bin Laden chants that can't be reprinted here.
For every chant that caught on for a few minutes, there were plenty of false starts, and not all the renditions of "The Star-Bangled Banner" and "God Bless America" were exactly full-throated. Two good souls had brought candles to light, but no one else was that organized.
The public noise was disconnected from the private feelings. As I made my way through the crowd, the quiet sentiment I encountered wasn't bravado but relief.
The one person I met who had been in Lower Manhattan on 9/11 a decade ago suggested that Bin Laden's death would allow time to start again. Looking more than a little lost, Spanish immigrant Antonio Miguez told me that he'd been waiting for this moment. He confessed to feeling "so happy and kind of sad."
For all the spurts of triumphalism -- at one point the crowd chanted “Yes we can! Yes we can!" -- what dominated was more a kind of emptiness. The United States had simply regained its footing, gotten itself back to the starting line. We had finally gotten our heads above water. Bin Laden's death, in other words, was less a victory than a psychic restoration.
One moment of clarity occurred around 2 a.m. when a young Middle Eastern-looking man, hoisting merchandise above his head, starting barking, "American flags, $5. American flags, $5!" My section of the crowd burst into laughter. The peddler, who quickly disappeared into the crowd, was just the most palpable sign of the evening that we were back in business.
Photo: A man holds up a handmade sign as thousands of people gather in the streets at ground zero Sunday night. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images