Shortly after President Obama announced Osama bin Laden’s death Sunday night, I found myself among a crowd of about a hundred Yale undergraduates at the memorial to Yale men who died in World War I. Students wore American flags on their backs, blasted vuvuzelas like they were at a football tailgate, screamed the Star Spangled Banner with an enthusiasm the melody has rarely been granted.
The overwhelming sentiment was victorious, but there was just a slight hesitation. “Let’s start a chant!” I heard. So it started: “U-S-A! U-S-A!” Then it died down. Another: “Yes we did!” And every patriotic song.
It was pure celebration, a newfound—or at least newly expressed—patriotism, but there was a pause, a question about how to express the flying emotions of excitement, patriotism, relief. My generation’s never seen such a military victory. On a college campus, with no adult presence, this was our moment to discover how to usher in a new era of triumph, at least for the night.
Sunday’s news surely affects all Americans. But something about the victory seems to resonate particularly strongly with the college-age crowd. We were catapulted into political and global awareness in a single day. Current college students were somewhere between 4th and 7th grade on September 11, 2001—just the age when a kid begins to learn about the world, to think beyond his own neighborhood.
Before that day, I’d never heard of bin Laden. I will always remember sitting in my 5th grade class in Washington, D.C. when the towers were hit. All I wanted was information; this was clearly important. It didn’t occur to me that my teachers might not know much more than I did.
School was cancelled the next day, and as the dust settled around the Pentagon and fear persisted, we watched and grieved together in shock. To our parents, this was a new experience. They didn’t know what to do, but they were grown-ups, and the kids followed their lead.
Since then, we’ve grown up in a world defined by the fight against terrorism. Bin Laden has been an ever-present force. “Oh yeah, he’s still out there, and we’re trying to get him” has been the way of the world. We’ve read about complete American domination, but we haven’t really experienced it. Until last night: The man who ushered us into worldly maturity, who shaped the backdrops of our lives, is dead, and we’ve killed him.
At Yale and on Facebook, my generation’s other defining prong, two camps emerged. The first was the one I saw cheering and singing under the American flag: Ebullient at the chance to step into a newly grounded patriotism. The second stayed behind their computers, wondering if it was right to celebrate a man’s death, whether much would change, whether we’d see retaliation.
For us, more than any other age demographic, this was a new experience. For the first time since those extraordinary weeks after 9/11, this country is truly united. That day, my peers and I were 8-12 years old. Today, we’re 18-22, old enough to fight. We’ve begun to take our place as citizens.
So on the second nationally defining day of our lives, it’s our turn to react, unguided, as we see fit. We’ll celebrate with abandon, but forgive us if we’re not yet precisely sure how. We’ll sing and jump—and, yes, honor and question and resolve to continue, too— and forge our own American identity, but we may have to consider just what to say, because we’ve never had to think about it before.
If that’s not winning the future, I don’t know what is.