Shortly after the news of Osama bin Laden’s death broke on Sunday evening, a boisterous crowd of college students spontaneously gathered outside the gates of the White House. As this local TV news video shows, the revelers brandished flags, chanted “U-S-A! U-S-A!” and even did a creaky, off-key rendition of the National Anthem. “We killed him!” one young woman shouts, excitedly. As this Insidehighered.com article details, similar demonstrations erupted at colleges across the nation, from Penn State to the University of Texas-Austin.
But to some, the sight of American young people rejoicing in Osama’s death was unseemly, even disturbing. One of those troubled by the display was Danielle Tummino, an Episcopal priest whose Long Island neighborhood included many victims of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. As she explained in this CNN.com article:
My first reaction was, ‘I wish I was with them.’ My second reaction was, ‘This is disgusting. We shouldn’t be celebrating the death of anybody.’ It felt gross.
But it was revealing to note that most of the revelers in both Washington and at Ground Zero in New York appeared to be in their late teens or early twenties, members of a generation who were in elementary school when Al Qaeda launched the deadliest-ever terrorist attack on U.S. soil back in 2001. Just as the psyches of previous generations were imprinted and shaped by Pearl Harbor or the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the perceptions, attitudes, and fears of the Millennial generation were powerfully influenced by the childhood trauma of watching television replays of hijacked jetliners crashing into the World Trade Center and victims such as the famous “falling man,” leaping from office windows to their deaths.
The attacks had a measurable psychological toll on Americans of all ages, as this WebMD article details; 30 percent of subjects in one 2005 University of Illinois at Chicago study felt very or extremely pessimistic about future prospects for world peace, and nearly 28 percent reported having less faith in the government’s ability to protect them. But for those who came of age after September 11, the effect may have been most profound.
As sociologist Neil Howe explained in this 2009 Newsweek article, those who came of age after the September 11 attacks grew up in an atmosphere of uncertainty and trepidation. “9-11 was the beginning of a new fear in America about chaos and uncontrolled disorder in the world,” he said. As impressionable children, they saw teachers and parents seized by fear and emotionally devastated, and watched on TV as their protective authority figures—police officers and firefighters—died under a mountain of smoking rubble.
Social scientists who’ve studied the Millennials say that they reacted to 9-11’s searing effect in a variety of ways, and that the pattern is not completely clear. As this 2009 Pew study of Millennials details, their generational worldview tends to differ significantly from preceding generations. They are the least overtly religious cohort in recent memory, and tend to cast a wary eye upon human nature, with two-thirds saying that “you can’t be too careful” when dealing with people. Contrary to the stereotype of young people obsessed with expensive sneakers and electronic gadgets, Millennials actually are far less materialistic and career-driven than their predecessors in the Baby Boom and Generation X; only 15 percent say the most important thing to them is having a high-paying job, while 52 percent place “being a good parent” at the top of the list. Possibly because they saw the military’s helplessness to prevent an attack on its own headquarters, fewer than 40 percent believe that the best way to ensure peace is though military strength—a view that’s embraced by 55 percent of Baby Boomers and 70 percent of older Americans.
But young Americans also tend to be idealistic, and that may explain the displays of enthusiasm for Osama’s demise. As Alexander Astin, a retired UCLA professor who has studied Millennials, explained to Insidehighered.com:
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.
Matthew Segal, a 25-year-old who heads Our Time, a national organization for under-30 Americans, echoed those sentiments in a Huffington Post article:
This is obviously huge a huge moment for us. We’ve grown up with Osama bin Laden as the defining villain, the central antagonist of our generation.
More significantly, perhaps, Segal sees the defeat and killing of Osama as a psychological game-changer for a generation who grew up in a world of diminished expectations, where the bad guys seemed too often to win, or at least to be able to commit evil with impunity.
All we hear is bad news upon bad news upon bad news…Our generation finally gets to see what progress looks like, what it feels like when American persistence actually leads to results.”