On Sunday night at 8:45 p.m. CST, the news of Osama bin Laden’s death was beginning to spread through the Twittersphere. It was Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director, who first tweeted “POTUS to address the nation tonight at 10:30 p.m. Eastern Time,” at which point speculation began.
Then at 9:25 p.m., Keith Urbahn, chief of staff for former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, first tweeted what would soon become widely known to all. “So I’m told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden,” he wrote. “Hot damn.”
That tweet would be followed by countless others as news of Bin Laden’s death was trending throughout the world, including Austin. By the time President Barack Obama addressed the nation live at 10:35 p.m., the world already knew.
According to Akamai’s Net Usage Index, which measures traffic to top news sites, more than 4.1 million page views were registered around the time Obama delivered the news live on television. Meanwhile, Twitter reported a peak of 5,106 tweets per second during the speech, placing it just ahead of most recent Super Bowl (4,064) and just behind New Year’s Eve in Japan (6,939).
The news was celebrated throughout the country, most notably by college students. George Washington University, whose Foggy Bottom campus is less than half a mile from the White House, saw students pour out of dorms and converge outside the White House. Draped in American flags and singing the national anthem, the crowd of students joined others in a celebration that was captured by national media live on television.
In New York City, Columbia University students joined in the celebration at Ground Zero. According to the Columbia Spectator, the school’s student newspaper, more than 60 students boarded the southbound one train to the site where the World Trade Center towers formerly stood. Student Sean Quirk said, “There’s no better place in America to be on this day. To sit in my dorm would be completely unacceptable.”
Meanwhile, here in Austin, students likewise celebrated. The American Independent reported a small group of UT students gathering on a campus sidewalk near Guadalupe Street, waving American flags and chanting. The Daily Texan posted pictures of students celebrating at the steps of the Capitol building as well as in West Campus at Cain & Abel’s. Several students also set off fireworks near West Campus, despite the ongoing burn ban that was issued to prevent the spread of deadly wildfires throughout the state.
Then on Monday morning, a photo of the student celebration was printed across the front page of The Daily Texan, with the headline quoting President Obama, “Justice has been done” — an apt headline given the way in which it encapsulates the sentiment behind the student celebrations.
Now, more than a day removed from the celebration, we can begin to reflect on the significance of Sunday’s event and the consequent student reaction. Was the way in which we responded to the news of Osama bin Laden’s death appropriate, and what does it mean to celebrate a person’s death, even if that person happens to represent the face of evil?
Should we concern ourselves with the consequences of our reaction? Should we worry that images of Americans celebrating the former al-Qaida leader’s death, chanting “U-S-A, U-S-A,” may instigate still more violence toward Americans, many of whom are college students studying abroad?
Was the role played by students in the celebration any more pronounced than the general population?
Ultimately, we must accept the reaction as it happened. Most of the students who celebrated in West Campus bars this weekend were middle schoolers on Sept. 11, 2001. The killing of Osama bin Laden represents the closing of a chapter in the lives of UT students that stretches nearly half of our lives. And for many who experienced loss, it’s an extremely personal chapter.
Can we really expect less than such a visceral reaction? Hopefully, we won’t have to find out again.
Curl is an advertising graduate student.