On September 11, 2001, Cheryl Stewart watched in disbelief from the roof of her Red Hook home as a plume of black smoke wafted across the sky from lower Manhattan toward Brooklyn. Despite the horrific view, she felt confident that the Twin Towers would be standing tall when the smoke cleared.
Days later, after registering the enormity of human and physical losses on 9/11, Stewart, who’s a sculptor and scenic artist, feared that the invincible spirit of New York would never be the same again. As time passed, she worried that New York lay vulnerable to further terrorist attacks, which would perpetuate a reactionary atmosphere of fear in a place renowned for its free spirit.
In 2003, with war declared in Iraq and a search underway for so-called weapons of mass destruction, the politically-conscious Stewart decided to transform her front yard into a silent protest. She posted a marquee posing the question, “Where is Osama bin Laden?” The sign tracked the number of days the world’s most elusive terrorist remained free.
Aware of the loss of American lives in the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa, followed by the USS Cole attack in 2000, Stewart was familiar with bin Laden’s reign of terror before the September 11, 2001 attacks.
She felt frustrated that the efforts to locate and apprehend him faltered while war waged on in the name of retribution for the 2001 attacks he orchestrated. Her idea to keep a public record of bin Laden’s days at large originated from tabloid coverage of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, which included a prominent counter clock that had reached 444 days before those 52 U.S. citizens were finally released.
When the news broke May 1, 2011, that a special team of U.S. Navy SEALs finally had located and eliminated bin Laden, who hid with relatives in a heavily fortified bunker in Abbottabad, Pakistan, Stewart finally received the answer to the long-standing question articulated on her lawn sign.
The sign’s final posting the day of bin Laden’s death read, “9 years 232 days since 9-11-01: Where is Osama bin Laden?” A passerby scrawled “dead” on a piece of torn yellow notebook paper taped to the sign sometime after midnight. The news of bin Laden's death elated Stewart, who had just returned home from the hospital after receiving treatment for broken bones she suffered in a motorcycle accident. With the help of neighbors, she removed the sign.
In May 2011, Stewart donated it to the 9/11 Memorial Museum, marking the Museum’s first artifact dramatizing the historic milestone of bin Laden’s capture and death.
By Alex Drakakis, Assistant Collections Curator for the 9/11 Memorial Museum