Bin Laden’s Death and Student Reactions

When my professor walked in to my political science class yesterday, he noted that our class discussion would center around “that thing that happened the other day.” He was referencing Sunday evening’s U.S. military operation that killed Osama bin Laden after he had evaded capture for nearly a decade following 9/11.

My professor chuckled a little at his purposeful understatement. After 10 years of the War on Terror, after thousands of lives lost between the 9/11 attacks and two wars, after undergoing the tension of not catching a mass murderer, a chapter of this story closed Sunday evening. Bin Laden’s death is clearly a momentous event for this nation.

That was the feeling Sunday evening as students listened to the President while gathered around the televisions in Old Union and in dorm lounges. They listened to the President recount details of the strike and deliver a message about the significance of the event. During the speech, some remained silent and somber, some smiled, some hugged, and others revealed little of their emotions.

As I walked home following the speech, I heard fireworks and the national anthem in the distance. I heard that people through impromptu parties. Students gathered by the lake and sang songs in White Plaza. Others talked with amazement and relief. Topics ranged from the details of the strike to the President’s speech to Pakistan’s role in the story to the President’s chances for reelection in light of the victory. For the first time in a long time, I saw this student body truly unified.

Looking back a few days later, I really do believe that much of that unity stems from the fact that this chapter has been a shared experience for most students here. On September 11th, we were just old enough to realize that something incredibly significant was happening, but generally, we were not old enough to fully grasp the implications of the attack. We grew up and came of age alongside this narrative. We watched as the world changed, and this has largely come to shape our outlooks of the world, varied as they may be.

In class, we discussed the ethics of our celebrations following bin Laden’s death. I argued that the celebrations were less about a death and more about a triumph. As the President astutely put it on Sunday, bin Laden’s death was not only a victory for Americans, but it was also a victory for people around the world. Throughout the years, Osama bin Laden masterminded the killing of thousands of innocents around the globe – Americans and non-Americans, Muslims and non-Muslims. And while his death may be largely symbolic, it remains powerful. This was truly a victory and with it came relief and pride and reflection. When our celebrations, our reflections, our discussions, and our prayers showed that, I think they captured the shared emotions running throughout many in the world.

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