9/11 Inspires Student Patriotism and Celebration

May 3, 2011 | By Kate Zernike

Ashley Bright was 15 years old and on her way to school in Cottonwood, Ariz., when she stopped at a friend’s house and saw the news that two planes had hit the World Trade Center.

At the time, Ms. Bright did not even know what the twin towers were. “I had no concept of what it meant,” she said Tuesday, “except that suddenly we were saying the Pledge of Allegiance again every day and having assemblies about patriotism, and everyone was flying their flags again out of nowhere.”

Young Americans, like many others, had a variety of reactions to the death of Osama bin Laden — sadness and anger at the lives he had destroyed, questions about how much safer his death made the United States. But their response, in some notable instances, was punctuated by jubilant, if not jingoistic, celebrations.

In Washington, college students spilled in front of the White House chanting “U.S.A! U.S.A.!” and puffing cigars. In State College, Pa., 5,000 students waved flags, blew vuvuzelas, and sang the national anthem and the chorus to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” Cheering students jumped into Mirror Lake at Ohio State — as they do with big football games — and swelled the Common in Boston.

Some, like Ms. Bright, thought the celebrations excessive. But they were not surprising, she and others said, in the context of how much their young lives had been shaped by Sept. 11. For them, it set off a new emphasis on patriotism, with constant reminders from teachers and parents that it is important to be proud of being an American — a striking contrast to the ambivalence of the Vietnam years that marked their parents’ generation.

The attacks were the first time they had considered that people in the rest of the world might harbor ill will toward Americans. The experience established the world in polarities of black and white, with Bin Laden being the new emblem of evil.

“I probably wouldn’t be as appreciative of living in America if I hadn’t seen 9/11 happen and grown up in this time,” said Ms. Bright, now a graduate student at American University.

“We carry the weight of it more because our entire adult lives have been during a time of war,” she said. “The strong reaction is because it’s the first goal that has been met that we can take ownership of.”

Michelle Vered, a senior in an Advanced Placement government class at South Eugene High School in Eugene, Ore., said: “We learned about our identity as Americans through this really horrible tragedy. Even the celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden — we rely on all these bad things to identify who we are.”

Like many her age, Leora Yashari, 18, a freshman at Boston University, called Bin Laden “the villain of our generation.”

“We were always aware and always told he was such a threat to us,” Ms. Yashari said. “He was responsible for all this pain and all this heartbreak — not just when 9/11 happened but anytime you heard a group of soldiers died or hit another anniversary.”

In the world of the so-called millennial generation, said Neil Howe, a writer and historian who is often credited with defining that term for the generation, “Evil is evil, good is good. There are no antiheroes, there is no gray area. This is a Harry Potter vignette, and Voldemort is dead.”

“In a Harry Potter world,” he said, “their mission is to save the world for the rest of society. This is their taking pride in what their generation is able to do.”

Cara Kelly, a 14-year-old high school sophomore in algebra class in Somerville, S.C., when the attacks happened, agreed that her generation likes clear-cut endings. “That’s why a lot of people haven’t paid attention to Iraq and Afghanistan,” Ms. Kelly said. “It’s so convoluted — are we winning? What is winning? We don’t even really know.”

Patriotism after Sept. 11, she said, “was something that we could rally behind to kind of make sense of the attacks.”

“Since the attacks,” Ms. Kelly said, “we haven’t had something so clear as the objective of finding Osama bin Laden.”

Ms. Kelly and Ms. Bright were among American University students involved in a project called “Growing up in the Shadow of 9/11,” which was completed last week, before Bin Laden was killed. In a video for the project, many college students in the Washington area recalled how teachers and parents were emphasizing the importance of patriotism after the attacks — with classes that had not said the Pledge in years suddenly saying it daily, and singing patriotic songs at weekly assemblies.

In a survey for the project, students defined themselves as more open to the rest of the world, to study foreign languages and foreign relations — a similar trend has been noted by the freshman survey done yearly on campuses nationwide by the University of California, Los Angeles, which found that students post-Sept. 11 are increasingly inclined to study abroad.

But the students in the video for the American University project also said they believed that their generation was more patriotic than previous ones. They saw this for good and bad; a young Muslim woman who began wearing a headscarf after the attacks said, “I feel like regardless of your religion after 9/11, it made everyone question what it was like to be an American.”

Sean Clark, a senior at the University of Oregon, said in an interview Tuesday that before the attacks: “I thought we were the good guys, the best in the world, and that world was perfect. Then people came and threw planes into the towers and shook everyone into believing that there were other things out there.”

Among those barely able to remember the attacks, there was still ambivalence. But ambivalence gave way to celebration.

Margaret Chavez, a 16-year-old sophomore at East High School in Denver, said it was difficult to fathom the significance of a man who to her seemed as much a figure of the distant past as Hitler.

But after her mother had excitedly announced the news to the family on Sunday night, Margaret had quickly checked her Facebook page. All her friends were posting about Bin Laden’s death, and she wanted to join them.

She wrote one word: “Dead!”

Matt Collette contributed reporting from Boston, Dan Frosch from Denver, and Isolde Raftery from Eugene, Ore.