From the eyes of a generation that was too young to fully grasp what it meant when two hijacked airplanes struck the twin towers, the death of Osama bin Laden on May 1, 2011 felt like a victory. The last time something happened that spurred Americans' collective joy — because only some people saw President Obama's election as pretty goddamn cool — our parents were kids, watching the moon landing. One year after bin Laden's death, it's worth reflecting upon that night and what it meant for Generation Y and the country.
In response to Obama's surprise address from Afghanistan to comemorate the anniversary, all-but-nominee Mitt Romney was quick to criticize the president for infusing the occasion with politics. But, Romney uncharacteristically emphasized that he would have made the same policy decision as Obama.
So, what is it about this event that prompted unprecedented bipartisan support and a shared emotional experience for many?
May 1, 2011
I remember walking home that night after listening to Obama's proud address and as speakers blared "The Star Spangled Banner" and other classics in the always venerated "FUCK YEAH, AMERICA" canon. A group of students ran down Sheridan with an American flag, and while I didn't have an urge to actively join in, their expression seemed understandable (but maybe not morally palatable). In a nuanced world full of fragmented interests, people were celebrating together. It didn't matter if they supported John McCain or even Ron Paul — on this night people were actually proud to be American.
On the night of bin Laden's death, our generation was baptized with its first dose of dizzying, intoxicating nationalist elation. The last time we had seen such a public outpouring, we were in elementary school, and the flavor of the occasion was distress, and paranoid about new dangers to come. But this. This felt incredible.
It was easy for people to live inside this first high and forget that they were celebrating someone's death. For many, the feeling quickly dissipated — maybe even before they allowed themselves to get carried up by the initial headrush of emotions.
Sophomore Aria Jelinek never got into the rally-around-the-flag mood after bin Laden's death. "Although I understand the military need [for his murder] and am hesitant to say it wasn't necessary, there should have been a more solemn tone to it than the exciting, celebratory American day it became," she said. "Especially some of the things I saw on Facebook really bothered me."
What it Meant
Bin Laden's death was hard for us as a country to process, and understandably so. There are so few things — except bona fide tragedies, like September 11, 2001 — that can unite us as a country anymore. Our parents were allowed to stay up late to watch Buzz Aldrin and company take the first human steps onto the Moon. Their parents danced in the streets on V-Day, marking the end of World War II.
This wasn't the same. We weren't celebrating the culmination of newfound aeronautical strength or the defeat of genocidal Axis powers. This was the capture and murder of a single man who committed many crimes against humanity, many of which were against Americans.
So, regardless of their stance on capital punishment, people can probably agree that many overcelebrated following bin Laden's death. But maybe it's about embracing the nuance of our world and realizing that much of what happens resides within layers of gray.
Sarah Crocker, a senior who was studying abroad in Europe at the time, saw the event through a tempered lens. "I thought [bin Laden's death] was a better thing than when Saddam Hussein died," she said. "I thought [bin Laden] was more of a threat to the United States directly."