Students Respond to Bin Laden's Death

I was a college senior in Boston on 9/11, and remember watching the towers fall, learning of planes crashing into the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania, and sitting frozen on my dorm room couch through the ensuing hours of coverage of the attacks. When I was finally able to pry myself away from my television, my classmates and I converged on the center of campus, milling around as we tried to process the horrors we’d just seen. So it was strange for me to watch the overwhelmingly patriotic responses erupting on college campuses across the country at the news of Osama bin Laden’s death.

Rallys are chaotic by nature, so it’s impossible to parse out the nuanced emotions that students were feeling in the moments after the announcement. But listening and reading their responses in the days following is fascinating — it’s a glimpse into how terrorism, and our War on Terror, has shaped the psyche of a generation.

In a post called “Why They Cheered,” Insider Higher Ed thinks through some of the students’ reactions:

Suzanne Goodney Lea, a fellow with the Interactivity Foundation and a former professor at Trinity Washington University whose scholarly focus was violence in America, said the events of Sept. 11, 2001, occurred when many current undergraduates were between the ages of 8 and 12, an impressionable time in a child’s life.

“It was an event that really came to define the world that students live in today,” Lea said. “At the same time that they were becoming aware of their own vulnerability, they learned that their country was vulnerable in some significant way.”

Other researchers mused that the response wasn’t sheer patriotism, but about sharing in a historic moment which inspired young people to congregate in front of the White House, in Times Square and at Ground Zero, and on the Boston Common. Indeed, several Boston University students spoke to that effect in a conversation on Monday with Dean of Students Kenn Elmore.

“I wasn’t celebrating a man’s death, I was celebrating that this ominous cloud has been pierced, and that there’s a beacon of hope. A hope for a freer and safer future across the world, ” said one student.

“I felt a kind of cohesion that I haven’t felt since the towers fell, only this time it was from joy and not from mourning,” said another.

Elsewhere, reporters visiting primary and secondary classrooms found that bin Laden’s death prompted questions, emotions, and even some skepticism from students, many of whom were too young to fully comprehend the attacks when they happened nearly a decade ago. Yet the maturity of their responses is striking: One Roxbury seventh grader said he didn’t believe bin Laden was actually dead, arguing that he was still in hiding after having reconstructive surgery. “If he can get people to blow themselves up, he can get them to do plastic surgery,” he reasoned. (I’m sure he’s waiting patiently for photos to be released.)

Perhaps most poignantly, Time magazine tracked down a handful of students who were listening to George W. Bush read “The Pet Goat” when he first learned of the attacks. Now 17, several of them say the moment shaped their perspective on life — leading them to pursue international relations, ROTC, and or enter military academies:

Lazaro Dubrocq, now a junior at Riverview High School in Sarasota, doubts he’d be a student in the rigorous IB, or international baccalaureate program, if he hadn’t been with the President as one of history’s most infamous global events unfolded. “Because of that,” he says, “I came to realize as I grew up that the world is a much bigger place, and that there are differing opinions about us out there, not all of them good.”