New global pulse

It’s only been a decade since the September 11 attacks on the United States, but it feels like a lifetime.

News of Osama bin Laden’s death on Sunday only highlighted just how much has changed in the 10 years since Al Qaeda carried out its attacks on the United States.

I first heard about a plane crashing into the World Trade Center building on NPR. I still remember sitting, stunned, in my parked car at 8 a.m. outside of a coffeehouse, clutching a cup of coffee in one hand and my steering wheel in the other.

Nearly 10 years later, I learned about bin Laden’s death via an Associated Press text alert. I stared at the message for a brief moment, uncomprehending, before finally spitting out the word “wow” as I passed the phone to my husband, who switched on the television so that we could catch President Barack Obama’s press conference, only to find the network anchors hemming and hawing—restricted from delivering the news until Obama spoke, even as the news continued to spread via social media.

Indeed, it wasn’t traditional media that first broke the news but rather an IT consultant in Abbottabad who unwittingly liveblogged the event, tweeting “Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event).”

After the president’s speech, the news networks gleefully kicked into overtime while at home we marveled at the shots of jubilant crowds who’d gathered at the White House and near ground zero.

Although the idea of celebrating in a public square seemed, at best, surreal and, at worst, jingoistic, I could somewhat understand the need to be around others—face to face with people, not separated from them by the glass screens of technology.

On Sunday, however, technology was the prime connecting force—at least compared to September 11, 2001, when my husband and I, too upset to remain at home after a day spent glued to the TV, joined friends at a bar where we sat, comforted by beer and the company of friends. Then, we existed in a pre-social-media universe, where the word blog was still foreign to most people, as was the concept of instant viral updating, sharing and connection.

Now, nearly a decade later, we met up through Facebook and Twitter, and it felt as though an entire generation’s worth of post-9/11 coping mechanisms had metastasized into something resolutely tougher, slicker and, perhaps, more difficult to fully experience.

In the days, weeks and months following 9/11, many speculated that irony was dead—that such devastation had, in effect, stripped us of the resin-hard layers of cynicism and jaded humor we’d built up over the years and replaced it with an earnest sense of unity.

Of course, that didn’t hold true for very long—something clearly evident on Sunday night as news of bin Laden’s death spread like a viral grass fire, one fueled by LOL-captioned photos and snappy Facebook status one-liners.

While that swirl of Internet memes and jokes provided a decidedly emphatic punctuation mark on a political climate that had, as of late, been dominated by Donald Trump’s obsession with Obama’s birth certificate, it also provided a shared sense of purpose—however temporary.

Just as the news broke online, so did it swiftly evolve into a frayed mix of jokes and satire, nationalistic anthems and outcries, and, of course, disbelief and conspiracy theories.

It was difficult to keep up. Indeed, Twitter reported record traffic on its site and major online news portals logged millions of views, underscoring how much our mediums of communication (and methods of coping) have changed.

Forget the 24-seven news cycle. Social media’s created an instantaneous microcosm of the global pulse—ever-mutating, ever-shifting, ever-complicated.