A Part of History, Apart from History

Hours after news broke that Osama bin Laden was dead, Jeff Jarvis wrote that “Twitter is our Times Square on this victory day.” The New York Times published a photo of the actual Times Square, where firefighters cheered the announcement.

I sat in a cab, watching the tale of the tribe scroll by on Twitter. The friends I reached out to just chided me for not finding out sooner. But Twitter, which I often feel diffident about, came through.

I didn’t have to run around asking five different people about it or to switch TV channels, because Twitter was running around and switching for me, from anger to jokes to opinions and questions, amplified, added to, challenged. I’ve never been so transfixed.

I tried to remember when the U.S. had last won a clear-cut battle. But now I’ve been thinking about how events of this magnitude bring us together, and why this event felt so different this time.

The first national tragedy I ever felt part of was the 1986 Challenger explosion, 73 seconds after takeoff. I was a freshman in high school, on a hall pass in an empty corridor. A shaggy guy who never came to class rounded a corner. He was a “stoner,” which means he probably smoked a joint once, so I had been terrified of him.

He had seen the explosion in the AV lab. He walked up to me and said, “The space shuttle just blew up.” It was one of the first times TV showed someone actually dying.

We talked about it. I liked how being kind to him made me feel, and I was glad he was kind to me. Even a year later, we’d nod at each other passing in the hall.

For any event like that, you remember exactly where you were when you found out, just because the moment before seems like this eternity of innocence.

For example: a decade ago, I was at Phil Soffer’s wedding in Manhattan when the U.S. declared war on Afghanistan. Phil got word via a hand-written note, and no one else heard the news; could you imagine that happening now?

At the reception, Phil’s mom told us to smile for the camera. The way other people, before each shot, say “Say cheese,” she liked to sing out, “Say premature ejaculation!”

Earlier of course, news traveled even more slowly. You can hear wails and gasps on the recording when Robert F. Kennedy tells a mostly black audience in Indianapolis that Martin Luther King had been shot, though it had happened hours — hours! — earlier.

What did the crowd think when Kennedy, unaided by a speechwriter, found himself citing Aeschylus?

In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

Indianapolis had none of the riots that other cities did, perhaps because people there felt something different, together. I hope, in moments of victory and despair, we can be that together again. I don’t think the Internet has delivered that kind of experience yet, but one day hopefully it will.

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