There are two similar moments I will never forget - where I was when the Twin Towers were hit on 9/11 (terrifyingly, on a plane coming back from Chicago) and where I was when I heard Osama bin Laden had been killed (watching the Phillies-Mets game on TV.)
Like 45,000-plus fans at the Bank and millions more watching the game on TV, I just knew something was happening when a low ripple of "U-S-A, U-S-A" chants started to emanate from the fans in the stands. As those chants grew more numerous and louder Dan Shulman, in a Howard Cosell/John Lennon moment, told us what had happened. Seconds later, the noise had built to a crescendo and the cheering and chants were deafening.
Two thoughts crossed my mind watching and listening to this. First, "Thank God we got that evil bastard," and second, "Isn't it a little odd that we are cheering wildly about the death of a human being (if bin Laden could be called a human being)?"
I didn't think any of it was wrong or inappropriate. In the minutes, hours and days that followed, there was a near-universal celebration in America that bin Laden had been brought to justice. Even the fact he was unarmed when he was shot didn't produce any real controversy, for the nearly 3,000 innocent people he ordered killed on 9/11 were surely unarmed, as well.
But a few discordant notes were sounded about the raucous cheering and celebration of the taking of a life. A columnist wrote, "What's the use of cheering death. The red-meat celebration that erupted at the Phillies game was troubling."
A few letters to the editor sounded the same theme, though they were in a distinct minority. The vast majority of comments from sports figures were strongly celebratory, but there were a few contrary voices even from the sports world. Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall tweeted, "What kind of person celebrates death? It's amazing how people can HATE a man they have never even heard speak. We've only heard one side." Kansas State basketball player Jacob Pullen and the Milwaukee Bucks' Chris Douglas-Roberts offered similar comments.
I have thought about this a lot over the last few days and I have concluded, despite my initial feeling of uneasiness, that those commentators and the Rashard Mendenhalls are wrong. They are wrong because the fans at the Bank, the people who gathered at the White House, Shanksville and Ground Zero weren't cheering and chanting because bin Laden was dead. They were celebrating because justice was finally done for the 2,973 innocent people who lost their lives at bin Laden's hand on that eerily beautiful day.
I had feared that we would never find bin Laden and that the families of those 2,973 people - Americans and non-Americans alike; Christians, Jews and Muslims - would never find closure, would never know the feeling that justice was done. They'd never know the person who killed their loved one had paid for the evil he had visited upon their families. Now they would, and as I sat alone watching the celebration at the Bank, I was cheering, too.
Secondly, we all cheered out of the frustration that comes from a people knowing that 9/11 and Osama bin Laden had changed our lives forever. He took away the openness and incredible optimism we all had enjoyed as Americans. When the towers fell, everything changed. Security became paramount, and we lost a significant part of our ability to go and do anything with no cares and abandon.
I was reminded of that on Friday, when I was going to speak to elementary school kids in City Hall. They were going to act as jurors in a mock trial, and I knew that the courtroom where I was to speak was on the south side of City Hall. So we parked near Macy's, and I crossed in the middle of the block (yes, I was guilty), only to find barricades and chains were erected to prevent any car with explosives from crashing into the Hall. Grumbling to myself, I walked around to the southeast entrance, and found I couldn't open the door. It was locked. I learned that three of the four entrances were locked and that the public could enter only through security at the northeast corner. When I left as mayor, 20 months before 9/11, anyone could walk into the people's building unchecked and through any entrance. Never again will Philadelphians have that freedom.
We all endure countless other frustrations in our daily lives as a result of 9/11. None of them is earth-shattering, but they add up to the irrefutable conclusion that part of the unprecedented liberty, freedom and mobility we had enjoyed as Americans is gone forever. So we cheered to vent about that loss, too - a truly significant loss in the quality of American life.
And lastly, we cheered for America because those Navy SEALs had accomplished something we had mostly thought might never happen. Baseball and America have been historically linked. Though professional football is more popular now, baseball is the sport that's always been there for America, in good times and in bad. And it was baseball that played a very special role after 9/11. That first game played after national nightmare buoyed our national spirit. When the Braves and the Mets took the field, it signified to America that, although things had changed and we had been challenged like never before, we were all right, we would get through it and the American spirit was and would always be undaunted.
So it was only fitting that America found out that justice for 9/11 had been achieved while watching a baseball game. We saw 45,000-plus of our fellow citizens celebrate, not the death of a very, very evil man, but that justice had finally come, that those families could finally find some measure of peace and that the American spirit had endured the worst and was still alive and well.
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