Why They Cheered

Large, spontaneous student rallies broke out over news of bin Laden's death. Experts consider the reactions.
May 3, 2011

When President Obama announced at about 11:30 p.m. Sunday that U.S. military agents had killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, a crowd gathered outside the White House -- largely composed of students from Washington-area colleges such as George Washington and American Universities -- erupted in cheers.

At the same time, students from Columbia and New York Universities and the City University of New York filled out the crowds at Ground Zero and Times Square in New York, and rallies popped up across the country at institutions such as the Universities of Michigan, Delaware, and Texas at Austin, and at Iowa State University.

Penn State University, Wake Forest University, the U.S. Military Academy, Radford University, and the State University of New York at Brockport were some of the other institutions that saw impromptu rallies. The crowds sang patriotic songs, waved American flags, and engaged in the type of revelry more commonly associated with football and basketball national championships. Many of the events drew hundreds of students -- far more than turn out for many scheduled and promoted campus events. Individuals also took to social media sites to join the crowds virtually, share news, and solicit views from other people.

The celebratory reaction among college students -- counter to the stereotypes of campuses as so far left-leaning that they are always anti-military -- raised questions about the current generation of college students and why so many reacted the way they did, and several experts on student behavior and attitudes were surprised by the spontaneous throngs. Many researchers point to 9/11 and say it had a broad impact on how young people view the world; others say it is the nature of the Millennial generation to want to gather at major historic moments. While there is no clear-cut answer, professors say there is a lot of room for further discussion.

Some researchers and students said Sunday night's news helped bring closure to one of the most significant events in the lives of many college students, and evoked emotions that students might not have even recognized days earlier.

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.”

Alexander Astin, a professor emeritus at the University of California at Los Angeles who has studied college students' attitudes, said that he was initially surprised to see college students celebrating violence, something they traditionally oppose.

But he said students' actions on Sunday can actually be described by the traditional narrative. "College students are generally idealistic," he said. "To them, bin Laden represented a cold-blooded killer, a menace to society in general. Because of that, they're delighted to see him removed from the scene."

Young people seemed to agree with Astin's sentiment. In an article on The Huffington Post, Matthew Segal, a 25-year-old who is president of Our Time, a national organization for people under 30, was quoted as saying, "This is obviously a huge moment for us. We've grown up with Osama bin Laden as the defining villain, the central antagonist of our generation."

That might be the reason that individuals have been giving for the last 36 hours, but it does not necessarily sync with other work that has been done on student views. Sunday's events came as something of a shock to Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, who has conducted various studies on students’ attitudes.

In a recent set of focus groups designed to study the effects of 9/11 on college students, Levine said he and a colleague found that few students named 9/11 when asked about the most important events that had occurred in their lifetimes. Students were more likely to cite events that resulted from 9/11, such as the start of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The widespread adoption of the Internet was the most commonly cited.

Levine attributed students' responses to their hope that bin Laden's death could signal progress in America's military efforts in the Middle East and the need for good news at a time when bad news, economic and geopolitical, seems constant. “I think it’s more a matter of patriotism,” Levine said. "This has been a matter of frustration for the country, and now it is resolved.”

Before bin Laden's capture, most Americans had given up hope that he would be caught. A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation national poll conducted in September 2010 found that 67 percent of Americans were skeptical that bin Laden would ever be captured or killed -- a major drop from shortly after 9/11, when 78 percent believed he would be caught.

"It seems like the celebration at the White House was in part an acknowledgment that something was done by the executive branch that was unambiguously positive," Astin said. "People want to believe in the government and that it does the right thing and is competent."

Another theory is that Sunday’s news was the type of historic event, like national championships or elections, around which young people want to come together in significant locations.

Angus Johnston, a professor at the City University of New York who runs a blog on student activism, drew parallels to the verdict of O.J. Simpson’s murder trial. Both events captured the public imagination and are likely to be recalled many times throughout the lives of those who lived through them.

Because there was about an hour from the time when the news of bin Laden's death broke online until President Obama made his announcement, people had time to congregate in significant locations, and university grounds often provide that sort of venue.

But just because they were clustered together in public places doesn’t mean they all felt the same way, Johnson said.

“This is one of the times when you’ve got 300 people gathered in a room and 100 people chanting ‘USA! USA!’; it looks like 300 people are chanting,” Johnson said. “But what you’re not seeing is that people are figuring it out in their own way.”

During a campus conversation at Boston University on Monday afternoon, students recalled traveling to Boston Commons because they wanted to be with other people, but not necessarily because they wanted to celebrate.

“I was really struck by the fact that it felt like a lot of people recognized that this was a big emotional thing but they were not sure what to do about it,” said one student.

Professors said there would probably be more formal discussions like the one at Boston University in the days to come, with students trying to understand why they reacted the way they did, as well as what bin Laden's death means for their own lives.

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