Every generation has signature moments that will never be forgotten. For the current crop of students at New York University, the killing of al Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden by U.S. special forces presented a bookmark to the first event that shaped their lives, the September 11 terror attacks.
“I think that 50 years from now, I will remember that I was in the NYU newsroom when that news broke,” Katie Thompson, 19, deputy managing editor of the Washington Square News, said about where she was when she saw President Obama announce that the terror leader had been killed.
“When I was listening to President Obama’s speech, I personally teared up a little bit. I think it was a very poignant moment for America. We’ve had this baggage of 9/11 for so long. This is a big step forward for us in the war on terror. This will be a seminal moment in American history following those attacks and President Obama’s election.”
As soon as President Obama finished addressing the nation Sunday night, Massachusetts native Thompson knew she would have to rip up the front page she had planned for Monday morning and hit the streets to get reaction. She first went to New York’s Union Square around midnight, where she found a split reaction to the news, and then to Ground Zero, where there was also some joy mixed with trepidation.
“We found from the students we talked to at both locations that there was a bit of a mixed reaction,” the journalism major said. “There were a lot of students who were … I would say jubilant was the overall mood at Ground Zero. There was a lot of American pride, people chanting … people who thought that Osama bin Laden deserved to die for what he did and happy that America had finally taken care of him.”
But there were also students who were concerned that the types of celebrations that were taking place at Ground Zero and the celebratory mood were not appropriate and might perpetuate the cycle of violence. “That taking the life of this one man didn’t necessarily make up for the lives that were lost in the wars in the Middle East and the September 11 attacks,” she said of the response. “Especially for NYU students who know people who were affected or have loved ones who were either wounded or passed away in the attacks that us killing bin Laden is never going to bring those loved ones back. And that was a big concern for some students.”
The excitement at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia was similar, but with finals looming, it provided not just an excellent reason to take a study break, but a major tension reliever for a campus that goes into virtual hibernation when the end of studies approach.
Lauren Plotnick, 20, executive editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian, happened to be in the paper’s offices on Sunday night studying when a friend told her about a Twitter alert in advance of the president’s speech. Though the paper has ceased its print edition for the year already, the enormity of the moment quickly dawned on Plotnick and she scrambled to coordinate coverage.
“People are deep in finals and it’s difficult to get them covering stuff when we’re no longer publishing a print edition,” said Plotnick, an econ major from Maryland. She sent out an email to the entire staff and asked to them to start gathering student reaction and send in whatever they got: videos, interviews or tweets.
“The social-media presence just ignited,” she said. “We were using Twitter and Facebook to fan out the preliminary reactions … people were saying how exciting it was for America and how exciting it was they were finding out more through social media than through television.”
Even with finals looming, Plotnick said work stopped at the on-campus libraries, students gathered around televisions and laptops and started cheering, and for a little while, it seemed as if everyone in every house and public gathering spot stopped what they were doing to watch the news unfolding.
“On this campus, to see everyone reacting in such an excited way was really remarkable for us,” she said. “It really unified the campus and got everyone excited.” While she called it one of the most thrilling moments she can remember in her 20 years, she noted that one student who was interviewed said their father is an architect working on the plans for the Freedom Tower in New York and they were scared about him going to work on Monday.
Similarly, living and studying just a few subway stops from Ground Zero in New York, Thompson said a number of students expressed fear of retaliation and concern the city might be a target again. But, in the scheme of news she’s covered and experienced in her life, Thompson put Sunday night’s events up there with the night of Obama’s inauguration as one of the seminal news moments for this generation. She also described how everything in the paper’s newsroom stopped the moment it was announced that the president would address the nation.
“We all just gathered around a laptop. … We didn’t know what he was going to address the nation about, and then the news started leaking. … We knew our whole front page was going to be scrapped and this was that moment,” she said.
Plotnick said many of the students who offered their responses also called this one of those moments in life where you will always remember where you were. “For me, it has a whole other dimension. The idea of being in the newsroom and working for a newspaper when events like this occur and having the responsibility to the student body … it’s so special and it transcends time,” she said, noting the paper’s 126-year history of covering everything from WWI and WWII to the Kennedy assassination and 9/11. “It was really exciting to be in the newsroom and be part of that experience. It felt like a continuation of the role of newspapers and of modern media.”
How did the news of Osama bin Laden’s death affect you? Let us know in the comments.