The most unforgettable where-were-you moments of our collective history, particularly since the advent of instantaneous mass media, tend to be inextricably linked to tragedy: Pearl Harbor, the JFK assassination, 9/11.
But when the TV networks broke into programming on a sleepy Sunday night that instant, almost Pavlovian stomach-dropping feeling of dread quickly gave way to waves of emotion of a different kind with the long-awaited news that U.S. forces had killed Osama bin Laden.
We’ve been thrust – in multiple media – into a new, extraordinary drama brimming with sights and sounds of celebration we’ll always remember, tempered by haunting memories of the attacks we can never forget.
The near-decade-long hunt for Bin Laden felt interminable, but news of his death unleashed a flood of images that unfolded online and on TV almost faster than we could be expected to process them.
There was President Obama’s somber stroll down the red carpet in the East Wing shortly after 11:30 pm. Sunday night, to deliver the news we feared we’d never hear, punctuated by a simple soundbite that will resonate for generations: “Justice has been done.”
There were the fans at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia who erupted in cheers – not for the Phillies or Mets embroiled in ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball contest, but for the welcome news learned via smart phone and word of mouth, likely before the players had a clue.
There were meta moments amid the elation in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, and in Lower Manhattan, on the perimeter of Ground Zero, where it seemed as if there were as many people shooting Facebook-ready pictures and YouTube-bound videos as there were waving American flags, amid chants of “USA! USA!”
Television played a crucial role as the networks scrambled to assemble their A-teams to cover the spontaneous spectacles, as well as provide much-need context, analysis and, as Sunday night stretched into Monday morning, to add new information to the President’s relatively bare bones account.
The news traveled by television and radio as well as by news Web pages, Facebook status updates and on Twitter, where a conversation on what’s the biggest story of at least the year played out. By Monday morning, all of Twitter’s top trending topics were Bin Laden-related – including the fictional Jack Bauer of “24” fame, a character spawned by 9/11. ("Right now, Jack Bauer is washing his hands and changing out of his bloody clothes," read one typical tweet.)
Obama’s stunning announcement supplanted the remaining hoopla surrounding the Royal Wedding – another world-watched spectacle that provided a rare experience for a mass audience gathered over good news. The wedding was a manufactured event that played into our need for happy escapism. The death of Bin Laden, an unexpected, breaking news event worthy of the comprehensive coverage we’re seeing, serves as a reminder of part of what we were trying to escape from, but can never leave behind.
We’ll keep watching the celebrations, the interviews with victims' loved one for whom there can never be closure and devour every new detail of the military operation that eliminated our most-hated enemy. Our collective media consumption is undoubtedly tinged with residual sadness and a largely unspoken fear of an unknown future. The outpouring of emotion captured in pictures, videos and words, though, stands most prominently as a life-affirming demonstration of not only that we'll never forget where we were when we heard the news – but that we'll always remember what it means to us.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.