Views From the Top: Local Pols Make Sense of Bin Laden’s Death

giuliani ground zero1 Views From the Top: Local Pols Make Sense of Bin Laden’s DeathMinutes after President Barack Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden, the blocks surrounding the World Trade Center site were flooded with people. “It’s awesome,” said 22-year-old Laura Cunningham, holding a Budweiser can while perched on the shoulders of her 6-foot-tall friend, Greg. “It’s weird to celebrate someone’s death,” she added. “It’s not exactly what we’re here to celebrate, but it’s wonderful that people are happy.”

It was just after 2 a.m., and young, drunk revelers were belting out chants of “U-S-A” and bellowing the Pledge of Allegiance. They waved large American flags. One woman crowd-surfed as professional photographers with bulky cameras took shots in her direction.

Ms. Cunningham said the celebration was the “closest thing to being insanely happy, united.”

Around 4 a.m., police officers began lining the streets with metal barricades, gently prodding the crowd into a narrow section of sidewalk, making way for television trucks to stake out their positions with lanky light poles and miles of thick electric cables.

By the time the sun came up, those cathartic cheers had been replaced by something more sober and complicated, a struggle to make sense of what exactly an introspective and victimized city should feel at the death of a remote tormentor.

 

But for New York’s elected officials, the mix of emotions was particularly public, as they tried to balance the elation of the occasion with the proper decorum, and the remembrances of those who died with the words of caution that something tragic could yet happen again.

“It’s not a celebration; it’s a little more somber,” said Senator Charles Schumer just after 8 a.m. in the corner of a Sheraton ballroom, where Mr. Schumer was smiling broadly as aides set up a podium for a hasty press conference, before the senator’s long-scheduled speech to the Association for a Better New York. The night before, Mr. Schumer had been at home, working on the computer with his wife and daughter when he saw that the president would be holding a press conference, and immediately suspected it was about Osama bin Laden. Mr. Schumer said it was a great victory for the West, and called it “a turning point in the war on terror,” on par with “a Saratoga or a Gettysburg.”

After taking a few questions, Mr. Schumer posed with a copy of the Daily News, which encouraged bid Laden to ‘Rot In Hell’ on its cover. “I think this is what people are thinking even if they’re not saying it,” Mr. Schumer said. “And I’m sure the family members are thinking it.” Before his speech, Mr. Schumer pointed to the flag pin on his lapel, which he began wearing on Sept. 12, 2001. “I’ve never felt prouder to wear this flag than I feel this morning,” he said. The crowd of business executives gave a standing ovation.

 

At 11 a.m., Rudy Giuliani was standing on the corner of Vesey Street, as sober tourists strolled by with maps and cameras. Over his left arm was an American flag, folded into a neat square. He had on a red and blue tie, and an American flag pin on his left lapel. His right shoe was untied.

Earlier in the morning, in phone interviews with Matt Lauer and Politico, Mr. Giuliani had said he didn’t feel much like celebrating. The death of bin Laden–shot in the head by Navy Seals who infiltrated his luxurious Pakistani compound–wasn’t how Mr. Giuliani hoped to see the story play out. He recalled telling President Bush back in 2001: “Let me execute him.”

“I really did mean it,” Mr. Giuliani told reporters at ground zero. “There is a sense of anger and there is a sense of revenge that isn’t the most noble sentiment, but it’s a real one. And I think you just have to be honest about your emotions.” He added, “He deserved to die.”

In a series of interviews with television stations lined up along Vesey Street, facing the ground zero construction site, Mr. Giuliani praised President Obama, but made sure to credit President Bush, too. “This doesn’t happen in a day. This happens over a period of time, over a period of years,” he told CNBC. “Our last two presidents deserve a lot of credit. … Our two presidents, this one and the last one, look very good today.”

 

By 1 p.m., Mayor Bloomberg was joined on an elevated platform inside the ground zero construction site. About 20 television cameras pointed at the mayor’s podium; the tall, incomplete 1 World Trade Center was in the background. Three times Mr. Bloomberg noted that bin Laden was “dead” but New York’s spirit was not.

“Our assumption is, bin Laden’s disciples would like nothing better than to avenge his death by another attack in New York,” said Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. “That is our operating premise. And we started taking precautions yesterday evening.”

How exactly bin Laden’s death would impact the city was not entirely clear. His Al Qaeda network had, by most accounts, diminished greatly in the decade since 2001. “Bin Laden directed here and was either the planner or the inspiration for a dozen plots in the city, including the Brooklyn Bridge, the subway system, bringing explosive material through shipping containers,” Mr. Kelly said.

But he was not specific about bin Laden’s connection to the recent plots.

“I think it’s unclear as to what his latest influence was,” the commissioner said. “Obviously, he was in a building, we’re told, that had no Internet, no communications capacity of its own. So whatever he was doing, he was doing through couriers. But in terms of his immediate role, let’s say in the last six months or a year, I couldn’t tell you.”

 

Throughout the afternoon, members of the city’s far-flung Congressional delegation began to make their way south to D.C., where votes were scheduled for Monday evening, after a two-week recess. Congressman Eliot Engel spent the morning at J.F.K., after his overnight flight from Israel landed at 5 a.m. He had heard the news somewhere over the Atlantic, when the pilot announced bin Laden’s death, to cheers from the cabin. “I am glad we killed him,” said Mr. Engel, who cautioned that bin Laden’s death alone wouldn’t cripple Al Qaeda, nor bring the victims back. “At least we’ll never hear that miserable voice or see that miserable face again.”

“I’m happy that he was eliminated, because to have just captured him would have just invited every terrorist organization in the world to take hostages, and demand his release, and behead people and things like that,” he added. A number of his New York colleagues had been making the rounds on television, and for a delegation often derided as painfully left-leaning by other parts of the country, they were roundly supportive of the president’s action.

Congressman Jerrold Nadler, who had, in the past, questioned the president’s executive action in Libya, called the strike “simple justice,” and defended the president’s prerogative on Good Day New York. “Any sovereign country is responsible for making sure that its territory is not used to attack another country,” he said. “And if your territory is used to attack another country, you have the responsibility of stopping it.”

But the delegation was careful not to preach closure.

“I think every time a victim hears the word ‘closure,’ they kind of say nothing will ever close,” said Long Island Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy, who lost her husband in a similarly senseless attack on the Long Island Railroad. “Because there’s always an anniversary, always a holiday, that they’ll miss their loved ones.”

 

Late Monday evening, the White House announced that President Obama would travel to New York on Thursday to pay his respects at ground zero. But, on Tuesday morning, save for a dozen cameras clustered off a corner of the site, there were only hints of what had happened over the past 36 hours.

A couple of PATH commuters slowed down to read messages scrawled in brightly colored chalk.

“Justice Not Vengeance.”

“No More Funding Pakistan / Cut Them Off”

“In Memory of Maurita Tam, 99th Floor.”

A few fresh bouquets were stuck into the fence and, on one section, someone had taped pages from Monday’s tabloids. Most of it went unnoticed as swarms of people hurried past. “As you can see, it’s pretty much back to normal,” said a police officer standing watch.

apaybarah@observer.com, rpillifant@observer.com