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Let the Joyous News Be Spread

by on May 06, 2011 6:00 AM

I heard the news about Osama bin Laden while watching the Mets-Phillies game last Sunday night. The fans at the ballpark began chanting “USA! USA!” Toggling between the game and the news while waiting for the president to speak, I saw that a crowd had gathered at the White House and that those people, too, had taken up the chant. It didn’t occur to me that anyone in State College would do the same, but as I headed up to bed after watching President Obama make his announcement, I heard vuvuzelas and shouts coming from downtown.

I was surprised by all this because we so rarely celebrate death. I thought of the Munchkins singing “Ding Dong! The Witch is dead” and was struck, for the first time, by how odd that familiar song is.

Bin Laden, I realize, was our national bogeyman for the past 10 years. He shadowed college-aged kids for much of their lives. How deeply has the fear of terrorism, and of bin Laden as the personification of that fear, worked its way into their psyches, I wonder?

In writing about Penn State’s drinking problem on and off for the past couple of years, I’ve observed that there’s a desperate edge to the party culture around here. Kids who drink themselves into unconsciousness, into the emergency room or into the beds of strangers aren’t just trying to have a good time. They’re trying to obliterate themselves. Some of it, I’m sure, reflects the painful awkwardness of late adolescence. Some of it reflects their anxiety about how they’re going to fare in the less-than-robust job market that awaits them when they get out of school. But beneath both those proximate causes lurks, perhaps, their sense that they are inheriting a dangerous world, a country beset by malevolent forces.

True, we of their parents’ generation had The Bomb to worry about, which was more of a bogeyman than the leaders — Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Mao — who had it at their disposal (Washington Post cartoonist Herblock drew countless anthropomorphized versions of The Bomb). But as has often been pointed out, the difference between those earlier threats and the one posed by al-Qaeda is that this one actually came ashore. It wasn’t hypothetical. It was real. It shook us. Our kids — these kids — suddenly found themselves in a children’s book world where the grownups could not be counted on to keep them safe. They would have to fend for themselves.

And then our government’s failure to hunt down bin Laden, to vanquish his real or imagined allies in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with its failure to respond effectively to Hurricane Katrina and the near-collapse of the economy, demoralized us. More than at most times in American history, we had a corrosive sense that our leaders — our symbolic parents — were not up to the great tasks of protecting us from harm and solving our problems.

America, you might say, has been depressed, in the clinical rather than the economic sense. If so, the best thing about the demise of Osama bin Laden may be that it restores confidence.

Remember when Jerry Ford, upon taking over for the disgraced Nixon, declared that “our long national nightmare is over?” Remember when Nixon himself, in justifying the 1970 incursion into Cambodia, warned that America would be “like a pitiful, helpless giant” if it failed to stand up to the North Vietnamese?

Maybe the spontaneous rallies in Beaver Canyon, in Times Square, at the White House and at countless other locations around the country were an expression of just those hopes — that getting bin Laden, finally, signals an end to our latest long, national nightmare and quells, for now, those pitiful, helpless giant fears.

Such hopes may be dashed. They may even be groundless — the Ford presidency and the Cambodian incursion didn’t turn out too well — but it’s hard to over-estimate the role of confidence in the lives of both individuals and societies. Wall Street analysts are forever talking about investor confidence. The slightest ripple of economic news can, on a mass scale, spur enormous numbers of people to buy or sell.

Might the news that the Wicked Witch of the East has gone where the goblins go boost confidence in President Obama (and boost President Obama’s confidence in himself), stimulate investment and in general lift the country out of a 10-year funk? Or, as the mayor of Munchkinland might put it, is this a day of independence for all the Munchkins and their descendants?

Too soon to say, obviously. A friend of mine was dismissive of the outpouring of joy in Beaver Canyon. Any excuse to party, he said. But I appreciated seeing the Munchkins sing and ring the bells out (or, in this case, blow the vuvuzelas) over something other than beating the Buckeyes.


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A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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