Good Grief–Why Are the Students Cheering?

“Why They Cheered,” an article on Inside Higher Ed, explored the possible explanations of why crowds, mostly made up of college students, surged into the streets Sunday night to celebrate the end of Osama bin Laden.  Though some of us think the explanation is entirely obvious, the IHE article did not. It had the puzzled tone of a bookish visitor, plunked down amid a remote primitive tribe, trying valiantly to figure out its strange ways.

One quoted analyst thought it may have something to do with the vulnerable age of today’s collegians at the time of 9/11–the years from 8 to 12 are said to be an especially vulnerable time in a child’s life. Another thinker suggested that the students are “generally idealistic” and therefore prone to see Osama as “a cold-blooded killer, a menace to society.” Of course the explanatory power of that opinion is weakened by the fact that many non-idealists and non-students saw Osama in much the same way.
Veering even farther from reality, the article suggested a parallel with crowd reaction to the O.J. Simpson verdict or a national sports championship. A close second in the reality-free analysis department came from Angus Johnston of CUNY who suggested that maybe two-thirds of the celebrants were not really celebrating but had surged into the streets in an attempt  to sort out their personal feelings: “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, but what you’re not seeing is that people are figuring it out their own way.”
The New Yorker magazine’s explanation of the crowd behavior also adopted a bit of the puzzled anthropologist approach, but with a more straightforward view of an out-of-touch elitist looking down on fly-over America.  In their “simplistic catchiness,” the Sunday night crowds “had something in common” with crowds of young Muslims burning the U.S. flag and shouting ‘Death to America.” Neither kind of crowd represents more than a small minority, he wrote. (Moral equivalence alert: photos comparing these two kinds of crowd are supplied to clinch the argument.)
This writer said it’s OK to have a drink the celebrate Osama’s death, but deplored “the frat-house essence” of Sunday night and assured us that “the quieter (and older) majority reacted with thoughts and feelings far more complex and dignified…” The writer faulted the media for focusing on the loud crowds instead of the thoughtful, quiet people elsewhere–possibly a new low in media analysis.
This all-fog article yielded to a clear comment from one reader: “College students waving their own flag and chanting ‘USA!’ in unison is a moment of solidarity against common threat. Burning the flag of another country and shouting ‘Death to (all the people in one nation)’ isn’t the same thing at all.” No it’s not.


  • John Leo

    John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

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