We had a rare moment this week that will be filed in every American’s brain under “Where I Was When.” We don’t get a lot of these. Sure, I remember where I was when hearing certain election results or about particularly horrendous natural disasters, but that was because I cared about them. Not everyone did care about those particular events, or if they did, they might not have felt the same way about them.
But when the world found out that Osama bin Laden had been killed, every American cared, and we all have (more or less) the same opinion: that dude was bad and we’re glad he’s not still at large. This was evident in our collective and immediate harkening back to the last “where I was when” moment, September 11 itself. Naturally this was in part because the two events are inextricably tied, but also because the moments themselves are that last two of their kind in breadth and gravity.
So naturally, I was thinking about “where I was when” I heard about the World Trade Center: on a soccer field on MSU’s campus. And then I thought about where I was on Sunday when I heard about bin Laden: Twitter. And then I realized what a stunning decade we’ve had.
I was just getting to my soccer class on Tuesday morning when it was clear something was awry. A few students had heard something about a bombing or a plane crash in New York City, that there might be some attack going on. My instructor was undaunted. He actually said,
“You can find out after the scrimmage. I was in the Marines; if it was something big, Saddam Houssein is already dead. Get out on the field.”
So we scrimmaged. After a period or two, some students started to complain that they had family in New York and they really wanted to go back to their dorms to make sure everything was OK. The class did end up dismissing early, but only after everyone slowly trickled away, our guts telling us that campus was just too quiet, and something seemed off.
Everything was not OK. The rest of the day was spent watching TV. I started by watching in my dorm, and then moved to a friend’s in East Lansing to continue watching the horror on television. For decades, that’s what we’ve been doing as a nation in communal shock/horror/celebration. We watch TV together.
Fast forward ten years. Mike and I don’t have TV. We had just gotten home from a weekend in Tawas and were in bed before any news began. Mike was already faceplanted into his pillow when I picked up my phone for my ritualistic last peek at Twitter before bed. This is what I saw:
“President Barack #Obama is expected to make a statement tentatively at 10:30 p.m. Subject unknown.”
A statement? On a Sunday night? This was big. As the tweets continued and revealed the subject matter, I got my computer out and went to whitehouse.gov to watch the statement. I stayed up for hours, clicking, reading, watching video, etc.
Can you imagine if we had been carrying Twitter around on our iPhones in 2001? My soccer class wouldn’t have scrimmaged, that’s for sure. We never would have made it to class in the first place. But what else would have changed?
Yesterday I heard another heartbreaking audio clip of a husband telling his wife he didn’t think he was going to make it out of the towers. He didn’t. What if he’d seen the tweets of people on the plane a half hour earlier? Could he have gotten out? What if the world had seen the event unfold on Twitter? What if military leaders had had time to read them? To respond to them? What could have been different?
Think Twitter isn’t that powerful? Surely you’ve heard by now of Sohaib Athar, aka @ReallyVirtual, the Abbottabad resident who live tweeted the entire event this week? He starts by joking about the darn helicopters keeping him awake and then, as the day unfolds, begins to realize just what has happened – by finding his own quiet city as a trending topic. It’s mind boggling. This guy (who is hilarious, by the way) was, for a short time, telling the whole world about the most important top secret US mission ever. On accident.
Which leads one to wonder…what might he have tweeted before Sunday that could have clued people in to bin Laden’s whereabouts? It’s clear that he didn’t know the world’s scariest guy was his neighbor (he jokes about how poor his choice was to live in Abbottabad based on it being “so safe”), but what did he witness that he didn’t even realize he was witnessing?
When Kennedy died, people watched on TV. When Operation Desert Storm began, Americans huddled around their televisions. We did the same on September 11, 2001. But on Sunday night, we were tweeting, sending Facebook messages and watching live stream video of the event. We were interacting with our national moment.
The “where” in “where I was when” no longer means what city or who was there. It means which medium that was used to connect you to the information, to get to that place where the whole world goes through the event together.