Young Americans, like many others, had a variety of reactions to the death of Osama bin Laden — sadness and anger at the lives he had destroyed, questions about how much safer his death made the United States. But their response, in some notable instances, was punctuated by jubilant, if not jingoistic, celebrations.
In Washington, college students spilled in front of the White House chanting “U.S.A! U.S.A.!” and puffing cigars. In State College, Pa., 5,000 students waved flags, blew vuvuzelas, and sang the national anthem and the chorus to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” Cheering students jumped into Mirror Lake at Ohio State — as they do with big football games — and swelled the Common in Boston.
Some, like Ms. Bright, thought the celebrations excessive. But they were not surprising, she and others said, in the context of how much their young lives had been shaped by Sept. 11. For them, it set off a new emphasis on patriotism, with constant reminders from teachers and parents that it is important to be proud of being an American — a striking contrast to the ambivalence of the Vietnam years that marked their parents’ generation.
I think the biggest thing that surprised me after the news of bin Laden's elimination was the reaction to the reaction. The social media world blew up with scolds (mainly oldsters over 30) who were "aghast" at the "white male fist pumping" going on outside the White House, in Times Square and at Ground Zero. Students were variously called "macabre," "disgusting" and "the same as those who celebrated on 9/11."
Forgetting for a moment, that the Millennial generation has been the generation who has been fighting and dying in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (and de facto, on terror) the past decade. Forgetting for a moment that for anyone under 30, bin Laden symbolized, as Ho Chi Minh did for Boomers, and Hitler did for the WWII generation, the epitome of evil incarnate. Forgetting, as one student so eloquently put it:
“We carry the weight of it more because our entire adult lives have been during a time of war. The strong reaction is because it’s the first goal that has been met that we can take ownership of.”And for those over 30 who were celebrating, it also makes perfect sense. Given the economic drudgery and misery that has gripped the U.S. the past three years, it seemed to be a nationally cathartic moment: we're still good at something; we can still deliver a measure of justice to mass murderers; where there's hope, etc. I'm not sure people were "celebrating" bin Laden getting his head blown off as much as they were blowing off steam (Durkheim, collective conscience, etc.).
It also brought a measure of sanity to the so-called political debate. The Sunday afternoon before bin Laden's termination was announced, the "gripping" national issues of Donald Trump and the president's birth certificate were being "debated" on the national news programs.
And for those of us who have been arguing the "war on terror" is fundamentally an intelligence and law enforcement problem, not a military one, there is also a measure of vindication as well. As George Will (of all people) notes:
Gasp. A vindication for those of us branded lunatics who dared utter such a thing back in the good old days of 2004. Even more surprising, a vindication of John Kerry, who in addition to being right on that, was also correct about the Bush administration missing bin Laden in Tora Bora because they had taken their eye off him and focused on Saddam Hussein (who had nothing to do with 9/11, terrorism, WMD or anything else related to U.S. interests).
During the 2004 presidential campaign, John Kerry received much derision for his belief that although the war on terror will be "occasionally military," it is "primarily an intelligence and law enforcement operation that requires cooperation around the world." Kerry, as paraphrased by The New York Times Magazine of Oct. 10, thought "many of the interdiction tactics that cripple drug lords, including governments working jointly to share intelligence, patrol borders and force banks to identify suspicious customers, can also be some of the most useful tools in the war on terror." True then; even more obviously true now.Again: Granted, the distinction between military and law enforcement facets is not a bright line. But neither is it a distinction without a difference. And the more we couch our thinking in military categories, the more we open ourselves to misadventures like the absurd and deepening one in Libya.
That also brings me to another "debate" from the old says, now being revived with bin Laden's demise: that torture (er, "enhanced interrogation") works.
As intelligence officials disclosed the trail of evidence that led to the compound in Pakistan where Bin Laden was hiding, a chorus of Bush administration officials claimed vindication for their policy of “enhanced interrogation techniques” like waterboarding.
Among them was John Yoo, a former Justice Department official who wrote secret legal memorandums justifying brutal interrogations. “President Obama can take credit, rightfully, for the success today,” Mr. Yoo wrote Monday in National Review, “but he owes it to the tough decisions taken by the Bush administration.”
For those of you with short memories: you can be sure that if John Yoo is arguing anything, the opposite must be true. As the current administration has made clear so far, torture had nothing to do with the information gleaned that led to bin Laden's extermination. In fact, the opposite occurred: those waterboarded deliberately steered interrogators away from the "courier" who eventually was fingered and led them to bin Laden's mansion via good old fashioned intelligence gathering and detective work.
Another funny sidebar: mansion. All that folklore about bin Laden living in caves or spider holes, among his terrorist people, and dude is living in the Pakistani equivalent of the Biltmore House, taping upcoming segments for Robin Leach. At least Saddam Hussein got down with the people those last few days of freedom.
All of which is to say, I think the 20-somethings and college students have got it more right than us oldsters do. We can debate the intricacies of jingoism and simplistic, black/white views of the world, but bin Laden represented a cultural touchstone to the Millennial generation that he could never represent to my generation, or Baby Boomers, or anyone older.
In the world of the so-called millennial generation, said Neil Howe, a writer and historian who is often credited with defining that term for the generation, “Evil is evil, good is good. There are no antiheroes, there is no gray area. This is a Harry Potter vignette, and Voldemort is dead.”
“In a Harry Potter world,” he said, “their mission is to save the world for the rest of society. This is their taking pride in what their generation is able to do.”
UPDATE: More on the reaction from social psychologists: everything from "existential release" to "just deserts."
UPDATE II: Two good op-eds from yesterday's NYT (5/8/11). Jonathan Haidt talks up Durkheim and others in explaining the reaction from another sociological point of view (see above), while Maureen Dowd explores the rightness of the reaction amongst the Millennial Generation (see above).
Now if these folks would citing The Power Elite Blog in their work, we would appreciate it.