My generation was the first that got to watch world events of historic import unfold, in real time, on television. I remember, in high school, being glued to CNN during the first Gulf war, entranced by green-tinted explosions that were captured by night-vision cameras and fearful over the scud attacks on Israel.
Eventually, though, watching history on television became kind of mundane. Whereas it felt like CNN was transporting us to Kuwait in 1990, you can only watch so many election returns or presidential speeches or even earthquakes and hurricanes before you become jaded. During the second Gulf war, the schock-and-awe phase seemed more like a Michael Bay production than the long-awaited removal of a brutal dictator (or act of illegal war, depending on your stance).
Which makes it all the more disconcerting when the events unfolding depart from the scripts of expectations, when things truly surprise you. Such events seem rarer and rarer. Sept. 11, no doubt, was one of them. I remember the profound confusion I felt when the first tower fell. It seemed so far out of the realm of possibility that I stood there, jaw dropped, waiting for the smoke to clear and reveal that the wind had merely kicked up and obscured things.
On a lesser scale, that’s what watching the events in Tahrir Square felt like today. I had Al Jazeera streaming all afternoon, waiting for the Mubarak to speak. The crowds were jubilant and lively-after almost three weeks of protest, they had achieved their ultimate goal.
Then Mubarak came on TV and started talking. And what happened next was eerie. As it became clear that Mubarak wasn’t going to resign, I thought to myself, “Isn’t this the worst thing that can happen? Isn’t all hell going to break out?” It took a little longer for it to sink in among the crowds in the square. Quiet that had fallen over the square as the protesters listened to Mubarak, but shouts rang out. People were confused. And then the fervor picked up and the atmosphere in the square felt dangerous, borderline violent.
Eventually the protesters calmed down, gearing up for what is sure to be a big day tomorrow. There is talk of a planned march on the presidential palace. History could happen tomorrow, and all of a sudden, I feel transported.