OBL's Death: A Defining Moment for Young America?

Tuesday, 03 May 2011 05:20 PM

 

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First there were a few cheers. Then, as news that Osama bin Laden was dead beamed from TV screens around them, the crowd at a campus bar erupted.

For once, Alyssa Pupino thought, she was in the right place at the right time.

"I really don't think I would've felt more American if there was a slice of apple pie sitting right in front of me," says the junior at Ohio State University.

They partied Sunday night at Ohio State and Notre Dame and Stanford and many other campuses, rejoicing in the death of the man who claimed responsibility for the greatest act of mass murder on American soil. Students from George Washington University joined the throng chanting "USA! USA!" outside the White House.

Commentators and others cast bin Laden's death as a defining moment for young Americans who grew up in the shadow of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, nearly a decade ago. On Twitter, someone posted a link to a photo of celebrations at the University of Delaware and called it an "intense sense of closure for people who were frightened little kids in '01."

But it was also, to be truthful, an excuse to party and let loose for a few hours.

Sean Morrow, a senior at Clark University in Massachusetts, watched with fascination as his friends' Facebook pages lit up with photos and status updates from various impromptu gatherings on other campuses.

"It's kind of surreal to watch people celebrating someone's death," says Morrow, a political science major. But he understands it because, for him and many others his age, bin Laden was their boogeyman, "the main negative person of our generation."

Add to that the news broke late at night — and that many college students are finishing up exams and ready to blow off steam — and the stage was set for revelry, he says.

A defining moment? Perhaps, he and others say, because they say they will always remember where they were when they heard the news. But some — even a number of young people themselves — are doubtful that it will shape them in the way that, say, the death of JFK molded baby boomers.

"It now becomes part of the narrative of 9/11. But there's little to lead us to believe that this will be the watershed moment for them that we might like it to be," says Alexander Riley, a cultural sociologist at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. "They're treating this news item like they're treating other news items."

And that is with an intensity, in the moment, but also a quickness to move on to the next topic.

Richard Laermer, a publicist in New York who tracks youth trends, calls events like these "bolts from the blue," which resonate until the next hot topic arises.

"Twitter was all about Osama bin Laden until 5 a.m. (Monday) when suddenly the hottest topic was the rap singer Drake, who has a new duet out," says Laermer, author of the book "2011: Trendspotting for the Next Decade."

"I think we like to give them credit for something. I think they swagger and make these great statements," Laermer continues. But in the end, he likened the scene outside the White House more to "Dick Clark's Rockin' New Year's Eve" than a serious reaction.

Pupino, the Ohio State student, knows what he means. Even she said the celebrations on her campus reminded her of the parties that break out after the football or basketball teams beat a rival like the University of Michigan. Early Monday, dozens of students jumped into a campus lake, as they often do after games.

"But I think a lot of them were sober this time," Pupino says, chuckling. "It was a different type of joy," more like the elation many students felt when President Obama was elected.

There are those who say that bin Laden's death may help them move on.

"I do think it's brought renewed hope that we are no longer reeling from the events of 9/11," says Amanda Guisbond, a 25-year-old Boston resident who works in public relations.

But as much as we like to paint this generation of young people with a broad brush, their reactions are as mixed as any other American's.

Some talk about relief and unity. Still others worry about retaliation from other terrorists.

If there is a common thread, many young people say they understand the significance of bin Laden's death — defining or not — better than they may have understood Sept. 11, when many of today's college students were still in elementary school.

"This moment is different for me, at least. I know much more now than I did back then, and I know now that when something like that happens, you don't just go back to life as you did before," says Liz Martinez, a senior at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.

"We shouldn't let this moment define us, but let it inspire us to craft a better definition of ourselves."

___

Online:

Student paper account of Ohio State reaction: http://http://bit.ly/iXHp9B

___

Martha Irvine is an AP national writer. She can be reached at mirvine(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/irvineap.

© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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