As the news began to leak on the night of May 1 that U.S. forces had killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, a crowd began to form just north of the White House, in Lafayette Park. By midnight, President Obama had confirmed the news on national television, and the spontaneous celebration had grown to several thousand people, filling up Pennsylvania Avenue and spilling out onto the neighboring streets.
The crowd comprised, mostly, undergraduate students from George Washington, Georgetown, and American Universities. They waved flags, climbed trees, danced around, and chanted and sang: the national anthem and “U-S-A! U-S-A!” were popular choices, but so was “F**k Osama!” (without the asterisks) and other edgy cheers. Nor was that the only rowdy aspect of the scene. It almost felt like a postgame victory riot at a big university, complete with kids shotgunning beers and hopping fences to climb statues.
In fact, many big-name sports schools around the country did feature similar rallies. At Ohio State, undergrads jumped into Mirror Lake-an activity usually reserved for the weekend of the Michigan game. West Virginia University students burned couches, as is their wont. Penn State’s Beaver Canyon filled up with people singing “Born in the USA.” And so on.
The average reveler at all these events was probably 19 or 20 years old, meaning that he would have been just past the age of reason on September 11, 2001. For most of this student’s conscious life, Osama bin Laden played the role of arch-bogeyman, responsible for two open-ended wars and the vague but constant threat of global Terrorism. Bin Laden’s death represented one of the few instances of closure in an otherwise interminable struggle that had already lasted half the student’s lifetime.
Yet it’s worthwhile to consider the many ways in which the news that Navy SEALs had killed bin Laden was of no consequence to the average college kid. By the time today’s undergrads had entered high school, it was clear that bin Laden had utterly failed to destroy the American way of life. Young men face no draft-the closest almost all of them will get to combat is Call of Duty: Black Ops for Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. The threat of a domestic attack is negligible, and a trip to a mall or sporting event is a care-free experience. For most students, the global war on terror centered in Afghanistan and Iraq is a remote concern, apart from the occasional news story about a drone attack in Pakistan or a CIA sting operation netting some pathetic would-be jihadi. The post-9/11 American collegiate experience has not been drastically different from the pre-9/11 experience, except for the TSA lines at airports.
Of course, for a 19-year-old, stepped-up security is not a recent, temporary compromise for the sake of airport security, but rather just the way things are. Similarly, the Department of Homeland Security is not an ad hoc response to the rise of Terrorism-it’s always been there. Unless the student was precocious, he doesn’t recall a time before government wiretaps of U.S. citizens, drone assassinations of terrorists all over the Middle East, and the torture of enemy combatants were all both routine and controversial. In other words, while the classes of 2001 and the class of 2013 both grew up in domestic tranquility, the latter did so in a surveillance state and the former didn’t.
Will it be any different for the classes of 2023 or 2033? Obama’s killing of bin Laden, in addition to so many of his continuations of George W. Bush’s extraordinary defense measures, highlights the reality that the massively enlarged security apparatus is likely here to stay. We’ve traded diminished personal freedom and wars on the other side of the world for safety and comfort at home.
It’s a package deal that the students outside the White House in the very early morning of May 2 seemed to embrace wholeheartedly. One of the other most popular chants from that night: “Four more years! Four more years!”