(Pictured: Harvard students celebrating the killing of bin Laden.)
One week ago, some DC-area college students wondered if finals would be canceled because of Osama Bin Laden’s killing and the celebrations that ensued. Others, as I can attest, asked professors for extensions on their final exams.
Students were wondering about having to take their exams because hundreds had stayed up until the early Monday morning hours celebrating Bin Laden’s death in front of the White House. The school newspaper at American University, where I teach, quoted a student as saying, “The scene was unbelievable. People were climbing trees and singing, it was a completely unplanned gathering…. For a day we weren’t Democrats or Republicans. We were all Americans.” Others gathered on American University’s quad, singing the national anthem and chanting USA! USA! USA!
Amid the celebrations, several students in my class “Anthropology of Life in the United States” stepped back to ask about the larger significance of what they’d witnessed. “I heard students running through the hallways yelling, ‘Osama Bin Laden is dead! Turn on the news,’’” wrote one student, Hallie, in her final exam, due the day after Bin Laden’s killing. “Why are we celebrating death and violence? I read on one of my friend’s [Facebook] status, ‘Party Tuesday Night—Amurica [sic] Themed. Kill Terrorists. That is a prime example of how death and war [are] normal in the United States,” she continued. “Though the subject is more complicated than I can describe…death and violence should never be celebrated.”
A Japanese student, Sanshiroh, offered an outsider’s perspective. Referring to hundreds of billions of dollars in annual U.S. military spending, he observed, “the global military supremacy of the United States almost seems to be the national identity. As teenagers play [the warfighting video game] ‘Call of Duty,’ military casualties no longer get reported anymore, and college students gather to celebrate the death of the leader of the enemy, warmaking has definitely been normalized and become the American way of life.”
Another student, Christine, agreed, saying, “It is clear that warmaking is not a temporary state of mind for U.S. American[s]. Boys play with G.I. Joe dolls and watch movies featuring soldiers killing. War has become intertwined with notions of patriotism and the American economy itself.
“With millions of Americans shouting a raucous yelp of ‘USA! USA! USA!’ upon learning of Osama Bin Laden’s death, it is clear that our identity as a nation is tied to our military prowess,” Christine’s exam continued. Pointing to the size of the military industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned us about in his farewell address, she wrote, “massive military spending has become intertwined with the fabric of our country’s values.”
Hallie, one member of this generation that’s been at war for half her lifetime, offered a similarly broad historical perspective just a day after Bin Laden’s killing: “The United States was founded through war and has never stopped. We have been involved in at least 200 military interventions [since World War II]. With the wars today, it is clear that there is no military solution, and if we keep spending money on the wars and going into debt, our empire is going to crash…. The habit will not be broken until something major happens.
“We used to be a nation focused on justice,” Hallie concluded her essay, “but now we are a nation focused on controlling the world through means of violence and power. What have we come to?”
I, for one, am very thankful we didn’t cancel finals.