Obama's First Ground Zero Visit: 'Where is Osama Bin Laden?'

In 2008, the country was in a dark place and the terrorist was still in hiding

The last time President Obama visited Ground Zero it was the fall of 2008, the seventh anniversary of the attacks, and the national mood was different in every possible way from what it is today. He and John McCain were engaged in a nasty campaign against each other and Ground Zero served as a brief, superficial, respite from the vitriol. The two spent five minutes together laying wreathes. The site was still an empty, 16-acre hole thanks to ugly battles between the site's leaseholder and landowner over who owed who more money. The U.S. economy was days on the verge of collapse.

To understand why people filled the streets to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden this week, it's worth taking a look at Obama's first visit to Ground Zero. People have been looking for something to celebrate ever since.

I was at the site that day for anniversary ceremonies. Fewer people turned out than in past years, despite Obama and McCain's impending arrival (rumors were actually swirling that the two decided not to come). The plaza designated for the public was across the street from the square closed-off for victims' families. In one corner, a ring of people penned their names upon memorial canvases laid out on the ground. On the other side, a youth Mennonite choir sang solemn hymns. But the middle of the square was nearly empty save for one woman holding a large sign. It read, "Where is Osama Bin Laden?"

People eyed her suspiciously and, as if honoring an invisible force field, kept their distance. It was a question no one really wanted to face.

Later that morning, I met Jan, a blond, tall, 20-year-old, from the Netherlands. He looked friendly enough, but as soon as we started talking I knew he was different from the people I had spoken to here over the years. He told me he timed his visit to New York to coincide with the seventh anniversary even though he didn't remember 9/11. Rather, his connection to the attacks stemmed from a love of the 2006 U.S. Men's World Cup Soccer Team. (He explained that his love for the team quickly expanded into a love for America and then for the foreign policies of George W. Bush.) "I have a tattoo," he told me. "Of the Twin Towers."

"Really?" I said. "Where?"

The tattoo was on his bicep. A large, black-and-white sketch of the towers filled the upper portion of his arm. The words "Never Forget" ran across the top of the tattoo and "9-11-01" across the bottom.

Somewhat stunned, I asked him, "Are other people back home doing this too?"

"No," he said, cheerily. "Everyone in my village thinks I'm crazy." I nodded, we chatted, and then we said goodbye.

Later that afternoon, when anniversary events ended, I walked up Broadway past the site one last time. The sidewalks were clear except for a group of men in black T-shirts and jeans. Some of them held stacks of bumper stickers, a few of which lay on the ground. "9-11 WAS AN INSIDE JOB," one read.

The men stood in a loose circle. Two people in the middle were arguing. It looked like a rap battle, but different. "Tower 7!" one yelled. A pair of arms flailed above people's head. "Explain that!" Tower 7 collapsed about six hours after the Twin Towers and it figures prominently in almost all 9/11 conspiracy theories, because some believe it is evidence for U.S. government involvement in the attacks, ostensibly using controlled demolition.

I stood by their circle and listened to the debate. Theirs were the loudest voices that day.

Over the past couple of years, rebuilding at the World Trade Center site has finally moved forward, but the mood has often remained dark and uncertain. Last fall, the ninth anniversary ceremonies at Ground Zero were overwhelmed by angry protests against the proposed Islamic Center and Mosque.

President Obama's second visit to the Ground Zero, where he will meet with victims' families, will be a solemn affair. But it will also be warm, friendly, and perhaps hopeful. It's nice to think, even for a moment, that it marks a change for the better.