America's New National Memorial Sites: Ground Zero and Shanksville, Pa.

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The spots terrorists once attacked have attracted hundreds of people as the country processes Osama bin Laden's death

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The killing of Osama bin Laden sparked many reactions among Americans when it was announced Sunday night. Some cheered, some mourned, and some felt deeply unsatisfied. But many also felt the need to leave their houses -- in Washington DC, they walked and biked to the White House and celebrated, as The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal observed in a gallery of personal photographs from the night.

Osama Bin Laden But away from the capital, many Americans found themselves drawn to the sites of past terrorist attacks.

The first and most obvious site, of course, was Ground Zero in New York City, where on September 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden orchestrated the hijacking of airplanes to attack the World Trade Center. N+1 magazine featured an essay from Richard Beck, who visited the location:

CNN reporters gathered behind me. They interviewed a tall man in an Oxford University T-shirt, who said, "You know, seeing all these people in one place . . . " A middle-aged black woman, almost all by herself, tried to get an "Obama got Osama!" chant going, and as soon as she quieted down the CNN people rushed over to interview her as well. A man stood a few feet away to my right, a big camera on his shoulder, and complained to his co-worker, "I'm trying to get on Twitter, but it's hard because I'm holding this camera." Then, a little later, he said, "OK I'm on."

Three young women, looking up at the telephone-pole boys with the rest of us, were unhappy with the attention they received. "Why aren't we looking at the monument?" one said, referring to the Freedom Tower that has begun to rise out of the ground. "Why are we looking at two douche-bags waving flags around? I just feel like it's not respectful. I don't know how I feel about this whole event." A muscly man in a t-shirt shouldered his way past me and my roommate, then paused, then looked around in a very focused way for a minute or two, then disappeared. I almost tripped when a cameraman tried to pull his cord past my legs. Later, my roommate reported that a few women behind her had talked about how hot the telephone pole guys were, and had started chanting, "What's your num-ber?"

How many tens of thousands of photographs were taken while Rachel and I stood and looked around for half an hour? The flashing, now a permanent feature of night-time crowds everywhere, never let up.

Just as in DC at the White House, people cheered at Ground Zero, according to Beck. He attributes a part of the celebratory mood to age, to the fact that so many younger people never experienced the 9/11 plane attacks in a visceral, understanding way. He himself was 14 during the attacks, he writes, and calls bin Laden "this TV character dressed up like a thirteenth-century shepherd with a prop AK-47," reflecting his own perception of the terrorist. Much of the celebration created a troubling cognitive dissonance in light of the terrorist attacks. What compels a chant of U-S-A, as happened in so multiple cities? As The Atlantic's Daniel Fromson showed yesterday, the chant came from sports games in recent decades.

The sensation that drew people to New York's Ground Zero wasn't limited to New York, however. Shanksville, Pennsylvania, a rural area 80 miles east of Pittsburgh, also attracted scores of people following Obama's announcement that the American government killed bin Laden. Here is the location where Flight 93 crashed into the earth in 2001, after the plane's passengers thwarted the al-Qaeda hijackers who had overtaken its control. The terrorists had initially intended to navigate Flight 93 into the U.S. Capitol.

 People from across Pennsylvania and beyond found themselves traveling to the rural site, according to The Wall Street Journal:

A rutted, two-lane road with few signs to point the way leads to the memorial, which is still under construction. Its first phase is due for completion by Sept. 11. On Monday, a bulldozer crew worked to level a hill to make it easier for visitors to see where the plane went down.

Nagib Khalifa, a retired urologist from Chambersburg, Pa., who was born in Egypt but is now a U.S. citizen, said he was passing through the area and decided to stop. "We got rid of bin Laden--that big snake," Dr. Khalifa said. "It's a great victory for the U.S."

Bob Steinmetz, a retired data-processing technician from Cleveland, smoked a cigar pensively after paying his respects. "One down, a bunch more to go," he said. "That's not going to be the end of it, that's for sure."

Gordon Felt, whose brother Edward was killed in the crash and is President of the Families of Flight 93, said the death of Bin Laden was important news for the group and the world. "It cannot ease our pain, or bring back our loved ones," he said in a statement. "It does bring a measure of comfort that the mastermind of the September 11th tragedy and the face of global terror can no longer spread his evil."

Mrs. Bower, a teachers aide for special education classes, said she was glad to hear the news about Mr. bin Laden, but was worried about retaliatory attacks by his followers.

National Park Service officials said more than 200 people had visited the memorial site by Monday afternoon--at least twice as many as would normally be expected on a Monday in early May.

Nothing particularly glamorous adorns the site at Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The memorials planned there are still very much in-progress. But the national mood still pulled countless people to these places to observe the moment of Osama bin Laden's death. "We need to go to Shanksville," one woman told The Wall Street Journal.

 The urge seems, on first examination, a little morbid and unsettling. The site of Flight 93's crash marked 44 deaths, after all. Ground Zero marked around 3,000. Why celebrate? But the instinct comes from an American tradition of honoring its fallen in monuments, whether in Arlington Cemetery or on Veteran's Day. Both Ground Zero and Shanksville may be sites that grow in importance over time and become new defining monuments in an American age that includes a "war on terror." These are natural spots for Americans to visit, with so much emotion invested in the figure of Osama bin Laden. His killing created waves of reactions around the globe, as Alan Taylor has shown. Regardless of what motivated some of the celebrations, the need to honor, memorialize, and mythologize is as American as the Fourth of July.

Image credit: Jeff Ray, right, and Jan Ray of Shanksville, Pa., attach a sign to the fence overlooking the crash site of United Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pa., Monday, May 2. AP/Gene Puskar

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John Hendel is a writer based in Washington, DC, and a former producer at The Atlantic.

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