Why were you celebrating?
This is the question that everyone over the mental age of 30 posed to me after Sunday night’s ebullience in the streets.
Outside the White House, on college campuses, anywhere you could find enough young people for a bout of "Mario Kart," why were there keg buses and teen-agers on stilts? Why were people chanting "USA! USA!" as though at a pep rally? Why were there crowds at all? And why were the crowds so young?
Is it simply that we millennials will take any excuse to party? I don’t think so. And I say this as someone who threw annual parties throughout college to celebrate the anniversary of the first use of trained dolphins in a military operation.
So here is my explanation: Osama bin Laden is our Voldemort. He’s our Emperor Palpatine. He is the Face of Evil, a mythical holdover from when we were too young to realize that evil has no face.
Our generation grew up drowning in nuance. We are generally not allowed to call anyone evil. They just had weird childhoods, we were told. Consider: Hitler got rejected from art school. Jared Lee Loughner was mentally disturbed. Even Darth Vader had midi-chlorians, or something.
But Osama was an acceptable target. And this was a relief because, in our guts, we are accustomed to simple villains. In every story that has latched onto the popular consciousness, there is a Big Bad, a nemesis. Evil has a face. Like Palpatine.
So for people my age, the idea that the news of Osama’s demise would be greeted with anything short of unmitigated exhilaration is ludicrous. Call up the Ewoks and get the bonfires started. We got him. The Big Honcho. The top cheese.
This capture puts a cap on half our lives. We beat this level.
It has long been our generational inclination to see life as a video game. As challenges to be overcome. Each level is controlled by a malignant figure who must be defeated for you to progress. Osama was one such figure.
We know this is a juvenile view. Sure, people are now coming out with studies that say it is actually beneficial to play video games (which mainly indicates that the people who grew up with video games are old enough to conduct studies). But what began as virtual has become our reality.
The problem with a world viewed through a video-game lens is the idea that if you beat the boss, you will end the game. Osama was the Big Boss, the Level Master of the Ultimate Level, the diabolical Waldo. He was the dragon lurking at the end of the final corridor. And we got him.
Of course we expect to celebrate.
For most of us millennials, Sept. 11 was when we lost something. Not innocence, exactly. It wasn’t simply the first dawning of tragedy in our lives. It was the one salient incident that indelibly altered the way we saw safety, privacy and probability. It crystallized our characteristic, semi-contradictory generational attitude: optimistic fatalism.
"Terrible things happen," we said. "But they happen at random, and without warning, in the most apocalyptic fashion possible, and those charged with preventing them cannot always succeed. So why worry? We must live our lives, and that means forgetting that such things can and do occur." No wonder irony comes to us so naturally.
But there was a flip side to this horror, even then: a moment of rallying. As millennial blogger Katherine Miller has suggested, we continue to long for that moment, post-Sept. 11, when the country gathered around itself. We measure ourselves against that time, when, for a few weeks, we were all Americans first and there was a run on flags and yellow ribbons.
We want to be just Americans again. And that means rallying in the streets with strangers in the aftermath of a defining moment. We did it after the 2008 election. And when the other shoe dropped in the battle against terror, we flooded the streets to see if that magical, elusive flood of unity would materialize again.
Instead, the revelry felt unseemly. It was simply the celebration of the death of one man, not a complete victory over any ultimate evil. Even as we cheered, we knew better. For us at 12 and 14, Osama was a reassuring monster. He was the face behind the random terror of the universe, the dragon we could slay and beat. Now we understand that we have scorched the snake, not killed it. We know the difference between a hydra and a dragon.
Yet there is still that 12-year-old inside us, exultantly staring down the reactor shaft where we just tossed the Emperor.
Of course we wanted to party.
Alexandra Petri writes The Post’s ComPost blog.
—The Washington Post