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05.02.11

The Relief of 9/11 Heroes

Those at the front lines of Bin Laden’s attacks—the first responders whose ranks suffered so dramatically—tell John Avlon that more than joy or euphoria, his killing provides contentment.

Plus, full coverage of bin Laden's death

“Celebration at Ground Zero”—there’s a phrase I never thought I’d hear. But that’s what happened in the hours after the death of Osama bin Laden was announced by President Obama late Sunday night. The memorial site, still under construction, was surrounded by spontaneous celebrations along Church and Liberty Streets in lower Manhattan.

Photos: Ground Zero Reactions

Those streets have witnessed American history from George Washington’s inaugural procession to the destruction of the World Trade Center. This is the beginning of a new chapter and it is fitting and proper that our focus return to the hallowed ground where the war began 10 years ago.

The War on Terror was never going to be won with a formal surrender followed by a signing ceremony. The death of bin Laden is as close to a VE-Day as our generation will ever know. We know now that justice delayed was not justice denied.

But for the veterans of 9/11 I spoke with in the late hours after the unexpected news, rejoicing was tempered by a sense of resolution. “I’m glad to see him gone, of course,” former New York City Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen told me. “It will help a lot of people who have been seething with anger for almost 10 years—so much pain for so many people. It is a great day.”

“I went to a dinner two weeks ago with over 100 New York City firefighters who served in Iraq or Afghanistan,” Von Essen continued. “They wanted revenge—because they cared so much about the spirit of the men we lost that day. Their commitment has been rewarded today—and the commitment of all the individuals who suffered such losses.”

“I can't tell you exactly how I feel,” emailed Richard Sheirer, the commissioner of the New York City Office of Emergency Management on 9/11. “This is a long awaited death and it does feel strange to be celebrating any death. In this case, Good Riddance!”

“There's not a day that goes by that I don't think of the innocent victims of 9/11, their families and the thousands of military men and women who have lost their lives,” Sheirer continued. “To the men & women who accomplished this, from the president on down—thank you.”

"I don't know whether to cheer or cry," said Tim Brown, a FDNY veteran who lost 93 friends on 9/11 and founded the TheBravest.com. "I spoke to Jill Regan tonight, the daughter of Don Regan, a friend of mine who died that day with Rescue 3 and she said that as happy and relieved as she is, she'd rather have her dad back. And I think we all feel that way. God Bless our troops, especially the Navy Seals and CIA who completed this mission. And I've got to say 'thank you' to President Obama. He made all the right calls on this day."

“Their commitment has been rewarded today – and the commitment of all the individuals who suffered such losses.”

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New York City firefighters work at the World Trade Center after two hijacked planes crashed into the Twin Towers Sep. 11, 2001. (Photo: Ron Agam / Getty Images)

Every American had their own experience with 9/11. Here is mine—I saw the first plane fly past my apartment window, low and loud. By the time I got down to City Hall, where I worked as chief speechwriter to Mayor Giuliani, the second plane had hit. When the towers collapsed, registering 2.4 on the Richter scale, we were enveloped in the cloud of ash. I spent the next three months writing eulogies with my team for the 343 firefighters, 23 New York City police officers and 37 Port Authority police officers who died in the attacks. It was the defining experience of my life. Now I live two blocks from ground zero, part of a neighborhood resurgence which is itself a sign of defiance.

Like other witnesses and veterans of 9/11, I am unapologetically happy that Osama bin Laden is dead. I only wish that his death had come sooner. But it is hard for me to feel sustained joy at the news right now. It is too surreal, coming suddenly after 10 years. His death is not commensurate with the tonnage of human suffering he caused.

And while bin Laden is dead, bin Laden-ism is not. His fanatical followers—Islamist supremacists, all—will need to be defeated on both the battlefield and the world of ideas. The good news is that their evil ideology is in retreat—the Arab Spring has shown that the rising young generation of Muslims reject the nihilism of terrorism in favor of freedom and generally peaceful demonstrations. American-created technology enables their uprisings—not good news for hard-line factions that want to re-impose the seventh century, cemented by hatred of all things Western.

This is a moment for appreciation and celebration. Our troops again proved that they are the best in the world, finding and killing Osama bin Laden in the heart of Pakistan without a single American casualty. We are reminded that freedom is stronger than fear. And in this celebratory renewal of "the warm courage of national unity" we felt after the attacks of 9/11, let us resolve not to succumb to the smallness of our domestic politics so quickly again. We are in a real war against people who divide the world into "us" against "them"—we don’t have the luxury of subdividing ourselves at home.

But the best way to mark bin Laden’s death is to honor the way his victims’ lived their lives. They showed us on the morning of September 11 that you don’t have to be perfect to be a hero. They gave us the enduring power of their example—meeting the worst of humanity with the best of humanity, running up the stairs and into the fire, giving their lives so that others might live.

So celebrations at ground zero are in order. We can now face the 10th anniversary of the attacks knowing that the man who plotted to take down the towers is dead and gone. The American way of life he hated—with all its freedom and diversity—endures and expands with a new generation. And even the 16 acres of lower Manhattan he thought he had permanently turned to a mass grave is rebuilding and reviving, honoring the fallen as we rise to new heights.

John Avlon's most recent book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politics and a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.