Government leads the 9/11 Generation’s celebration of Osama bin Laden’s Death
When President Obama announced the death of Osama bin Laden on May 1, 2011, many college students in the D.C. area gathered at the White House to revel in the accomplishment. Former George Washington University student Ed Dooley was one of the first to arrive at the scene.
“Over the course of about 40 minutes I’d say it went from a crowd of 50 people to about 1,000 or 1,500,” Dooley said. “It was absolutely crazy — climbing trees, lighting off sparklers, champagne, cigars. Some might have said it resembled a frat party but it was the most jubilee experience I’ve ever participated in.”
As I sat in my dorm room finishing up my weekends’ work, I watched videos of these celebrations occurring at college campuses across the country — students flooding the streets chanting “U-S-A!” at the top of their lungs, blasting “God Bless America” from their fraternity houses and parading across campus waving American flags.
I was immediately conflicted. I was disgusted by these reactions but despite my dismay, a part of me felt that I too should be participating, and by not outwardly celebrating, I was betraying my peers.
As NPR’s Melissa Block reported on All Things Considered:
Most U.S. college students were only in middle school at the time of the September 11th attacks, barely aware of what their parents were crying about. But this week, those college students have been among the most outspoken, even excited about Osama bin Laden’s death.
Over the last ten years, an evolution has taken place as there has been more pressure on college students to support government actions.
After the 9/11 attacks, people of our age group saw the red, white and blue flags put up in front of homes. We noticed the bright yellow ribbons plastered on car bumpers and took part in the “Support Our Troops” bracelet trend. However, we had trouble comprehending these sudden changes and the meaning of the terrorist attacks.
“As a child, it would take a long time for me to see what was happening, for me to understand [9/11], even in the slightest concept,” Dooley said. “The terms that they were using — ‘radical religious group,’ ‘al-Qaeda’ and ‘Iraq’ — I mean I had no idea what the heck Iraq was at that point. Trying to comprehend that is something I still struggle with to this day.”
As we struggled to understand the situation at hand, the government was already at work staging a theatrical performance — a national drama to boost public support in the aftermath of disaster. Behind closed doors they searched for a group of people to cast as the leading role — the change agent. For this task, the government turned to its casting director, the media, for help.
At the time, people of our age group were naïve, vulnerable, youthful, and energetic. In other words, fresh faces, willing to act, but easily deceived, manipulated and exploited — the best of both worlds in the government’s eyes. We were the actors and actresses of the director’s dreams. Now the media just had to recruit us.
Soon after the attacks, Newsweek published a cover story, which coined the idea of a “9/11 generation,” referring to those of us who would come of age in the shadow of 9/11. They hailed this generation as one that would become “politically involved, socially aware, well informed and civically active.” The rest of the media followed suit.
Although the “9/11 generation” continued to struggle to understand the attacks, we now had a greater purpose. We had been assigned an important role to play and were determined to fit the part.
But this role was tricky. It was multi-layered. To spectators, we had to appear to be critical-thinkers — aware of the world around us. But that act was really just a disguise, meant to deceive the audience into trusting and following us. In actuality, we were puppets, manipulated by the government and media and aware only to the extent to which they allowed us. They allowed us, for example, to celebrate on the streets when Obama won the election, which they deemed a good moment. So was the killing of Osama bin Laden.
After bin Laden’s death, we played our part to a tee — we came out in force, spoke up loud and clear, and stayed until the wee hours of the morning, putting on the show that the government and media wanted to see. Somewhere in offices in New York City and Washington D.C., officials and corporate heads dressed in fancy suits gave our performance a standing ovation.
The problem is we didn’t even know what or why we were celebrating. “Nationalism” seemed to be the popular explanation among students but the term remained ill-defined.
“First and foremost, everyone was there with a sense of nationalism,” Dooley said. “A sense of pride in their country and freedom.”
This trend appeared consistent across the country. Tim Bosserman, a sophomore at The Ohio State University, participated in the celebrations by jumping into a lake on campus.
“I think the main reason for celebration was a sense of nationalism,” Bosserman said. “Most political disagreements were nonexistent for the celebration in a sense. It was kinda just like people, whether Democrat or Republican, or how you felt about the war, everyone was just celebrating it as an achievement.”
Amid the overwhelming sense of “nationalism,” the supposed “well-informed” 9/11 generation was nowhere to be found. While jumping in lakes and partying on cars, they ignored the cruel realities of our wars in the Middle East, and the fact that such seemingly innocent celebrations may be used by the media and government to justify the illegal torture methods used in order to locate bin Laden as well as the prolongation of war. They also never questioned the act of killing bin Laden itself.
“I did not feel that I was personally partying in response to the end of someone’s life,” Mallory Lumpe, a sophomore at the University of Missouri said. “But that we were all so overwhelmed by a sense of national unity and were sharing a common bond.”
It seemed as though “nationalism” had become synonymous with supporting our government’s actions and accepting the script that the media provided, no questions asked.
After the celebrations, the media once again seized the opportunity to rally government support through their leading role. On May 4, 2011, CNN reported:
Experts who have studied the 9/11 generation say its members are more patriotic, more politically aware, more socially conscious and more plugged in than previous generations. So yes, American flags were waved, not burned, on campuses Sunday night.
The media framed the campus celebrations as an indictor of our generation’s awareness and support. But “awareness” was defined by knowing merely what the media wanted us to know and nothing more, and acting in accordance with their script. Behind the curtain, the celebrations demonstrated a failure to question our socialization and think critically before acting. The “9/11 generation” was simply going through the motions — acting out the role that we’d been cast to play. And this is frightening — especially after recognizing that, for a moment after bin Laden’s death, I was even contemplating why I wasn’t being celebratory.
Yet, 9/11 provided an opportunity for change — for seeing past the deception.
“9/11 thrust us into a global context, whether we like it or not,” said IC politics and honors professor Naeem Inayatullah. “It has the potential to make us globally aware, but it is not necessarily that we realize potential.”
Shortly after 9/11, a study titled The New Normal: Terror, Fear, and a New “Greatest Generation?” conducted by Dr. Patricia Somers, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, explored the effects of the attacks on college students.
The study cited that “a few recalled their perception of the national patriotism as ‘blind,’ and worried the people had stopped questioning the government’s actions and simply followed, ‘waving a flag.’”
A decade later, it appears that little has changed. For the last ten years we’ve been blissfully reading off the lines of a script written by the media, unaware that we’ve been cast as the main characters. If we continue in this manner, we will remain powerless puppets, forever trapped in their manipulative charade.
Abby Sophir is a sophomore TV-R major who recycled her flag pin. Email her at gsophir1[at]ithaca.edu.