OBL and the Nail in the Coffin of "Youth Apathy"

White House
Kristen Gaerlan
May 11, 2011

It was a typical night during finals week, with the entire college campus running on nothing but adrenaline and caffeine.

And then suddenly it wasn’t.

In the George Washington University student center, fresh from a midnight coffee break, I noticed that all of the televisions lining the walls were echoing the same headline: Osama bin Laden Dead.  Forget our study guides and cheat sheets, all eyes were glued to the screens.

It didn’t take long for us to do what we Millennials do best: Google the headlines, skim through our favorite (trusted) media outlets in an attempt at confirmation, and start sharing it using all the social media tools at our disposal. Within minutes, my Facebook newsfeed filled with politically-charged status updates; Twitter’s trending topics had bin Laden’s name in a hashtag.

While I can’t speak for the rest of America’s college students, the general GW reaction went something like, “OMG! Is this for real? Dude, screw finals! WE’RE GOING TO THE WHITE HOUSE!”

In the days since, a lot of discussion has focused on the reaction of my generation—the Millennials—and on the celebrations that sprung up in DC, New York and other cities that night. Is it ever right to celebrate the death of a human being? How do I rationalize the fact that I had the urge to celebrate in the streets as soon as I heard someone died? Perhaps by bringing up bin Laden’s status as a terrorist and mass murderer—sure. But what does that mean for me as a Catholic, who is taught the about the injustices of capital punishment? More so, how does that make me look as an American who is supposed to stand up for democracy and peace?

In the aftermath, I’ve also heard more youth voices in the news than usual. It makes sense that the spotlight is on us. For starters, we were probably the majority of the population who was actually awake at that hour. Let’s be honest—many of us were cramming for finals. (Plus, we’re all used to random sleeping schedules since most of us are unemployed and/or insomniacs.)

That Sunday night, as my friends and I joined a mob of GW students marching to the White House, I was swept up in a feeling of triumph. Already nostalgic as a soon-to-be graduate, the moment reminded me of the rally in front of the White House after President Obama won the 2008 presidential election. Then, as now, students from all over DC gathered to chant patriotic songs and wave flags

White House2In that instant, we were all a part of the same movement. It was as if every student in DC knew that the White House was our meeting point. Everyone was able to put their personal opinions aside as we expressed our emotions—no matter how different—together on that city street. It’s moments like these in which the District becomes alive. Our unified voices echo through its sleepy streets and our energy gives it a pulse.

I watched one guy climb up a lamppost to hang the American flag. Someone dressed in full-body stars-and-stripes spandex scaled a tree as the crowd shouted the Pledge of Allegiance. 

We Millennials certainly know how to make spectacles of ourselves. We love living in public and living in the moment—probably because we know that such happiness is often fleeting.

"Proof of Progress" - but What Does it Mean?

The death of bin Laden has left me with a mix of emotions to say the least. I can still remember being a confused seventh grader as I sat at my desk trying to comprehend why people would fly airplanes into buildings. Growing up in New York, the image of the World Trade Center collapsing is something that hit me in a profound way. I still sometimes feel like that scared girl whenever I see a low-flying airplane.

We Millennials went through all those feelings together—moments in which our sense of security was shattered at such a young age. Since then, it has been a frame of reference for us; we grew up awash in messages about the War on Terrorism, updates about possible threats and international uprisings. It’s part of the reason we elected someone who offered us “hope, change and progress.”

At a time in our lives when we’re beginning to lose hope and at an hour in the night when we’re stressed beyond belief, news of bin Laden’s death felt exactly like the ‘moral victory’ we needed. After ten years of what seemed like an endless string of empty promises for the “War on Terror,” Americans were finally able to see some proof of progress through bin Laden’s death.

On some level, it gave me a bit of closure to the horrific events of 9/11. But I realize of course that many problems have yet to be solved. We’re still waging the War on Terrorism—so of course bin Laden’s death isn’t exactly a definitive ‘victory.’ The full implications surrounding his death have yet to come.

Even before the crowd dispersed that Sunday night, I felt the the reactions turn from ecstatic to inquisitive. What does this mean for terrorism and the safety of innocents (American or otherwise)? Did we really just celebrate someone’s murder? Does bin Laden’s death put a bigger bull’s-eye on us? We’re not stupid; we know that the end of terror is not near.

So the conversation continues. Seeking information, forming an opinion and expressing our beliefs—Millennials do it so well. After all, our need to share information and engage in self-expression is what makes social networking sites and Web 2.0 applications so successful. Researchers who analyze our behavior say that these actions are a hallmark of our generation. We did it for President Obama’s victory and we did it again for bin Laden’s death.

Our desire to take action—and our agility with a range of tools to do so—is what makes our generation a force to be reckoned with. It’s the reason no one should ever be under the assumption that young people are "apathetic." When has that ever been true of my generation? Our turnout in 2008, our community service rates, our activism, the media tools we use (and develop!) all demonstrate that we're paying attention and are engaged.

... and that we're willing to grapple with issues as complex as these. I did a totally unscientific and informal poll of some of my classmates on their feelings about the death of bin Laden and what comes next. Here are some reactions:

  • “The death of Bin Laden, a being with essentially little, if no, remorse for innocent lives was a bitter sweet victory in my opinion. What took two Presidential terms, and almost a decade later it was an act to be proud of. However, immediately, I felt the same fear that I felt during the aftermath of 9/11; a fear for my family, a fear for my friends, a fear as to what would happen next.” –Miguel, Class of 2012
  • “My initial reaction to the death of OBL was a sense of happiness, and some patriotic pride, that after almost ten years, the US was finally able to get him ... then I began to think more about the ramifications of his killing ... I wanted to wait a few more days, to see what the next steps of the US government were as well as that our enemies, to get a better understanding of what this meant for the war on terror and American security before settling on any feelings about the matter.” –Pooja, Class of 2011
  • “I think it’s stupid that people would go out right before their finals to go to the White House, honestly.” –Nelson, Class of 2014
  • “Bin Laden's death was a victory for the United States because he was targeted as the mastermind behind the September 11th terrorist attacks however his death does not minimize the threat that religious fundamentalist terrorism still poses.” –Madiha, Class of 2011


Kristen Gaerlan is marketing & editorial intern with SparkAction. She graduated in May 2011 from George Washington University.


Whether your a Millennial or not, what do you think? Please share you thoughts in the Comment section below.


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