young people and the Osama bin Laden news

Yesterday, I was on KCBS radio news in San Francisco discussing why spontaneous public celebrations of the death of Osama bin Laden seem to draw mainly young adults. (A typical headline is this, from the New York Times: “9/11 Inspires Student Patriotism and Celebration.”) Given the format of drive-time radio news, I just had time to say that today’s 21-year-olds were at an especially impressionable age on 9/11/2001. They were first becoming aware of the big world of news and current events and did not yet have deeply held views. For them, the terror attacks would be especially influential, and Osama bin Laden would loom especially large.

I think that’s true, but in a different setting, I would mention some nuances.

First, it’s interesting that the celebrations were spontaneous and occurred in many different locations simultaneously. That suggests some breadth of interest and passion. Yet only a few thousand people participated, out of roughly 40 million young adults. I am not sure we should draw any generalizations at all.

Second, scholars like to try to distinguish between age effects and cohort effects. An age effect is the result of being at a certain point in one’s life when something happens. For example, people who are eight years old at any given moment in history are less interested in sex than people who are 21 at the same moment. That says nothing about generational differences; it is a pure age effect. A cohort effect is the lasting consequence of going through an event when one was young. For example, people who experienced World War II have differed from other generations all their lives.

In this case, we don’t know whether spontaneously shouting “U-S-A!” when Osama bin Laden was shot is an age effect or a cohort effect. It could be that people who are 21 (and especially if they are male) are always relatively likely to celebrate the violent death of a national enemy. Or it could be that people who were at an impressionable age when 9/11 occurred will always care more than others about the al-Qaeda story. There is not enough data to know which theory is right, if either one is. If I had to guess, I’d bet on an age effect.

There has also been a lot of discussion about a recent Red Cross poll that found: “Nearly 3/5 [of] youth (59%) – compared to 51% of adults – believe there are times when it is acceptable to torture the enemy.” One of the leading explanations is a cohort effect: today’s young people have (supposedly) been exposed to more favorable media depictions of torture than earlier generations were and are thus more likely to favor torture (now and in the future). Again, I’d bet on an age effect. I would guess that support for torture among today’s young cohort will decline, simply as a result of their growing maturity.

Yahoo reported this week that two thirds of the people who searched the web with the phrase “who is osama bin laden?” were teenagers (ages 13-17). This fact has been interpreted to mean that “a goodly number of teenagers don’t know who Osama bin Laden is.” Kevin Drum, in particular, thinks that’s an age effect: teenagers never know much about the news. I am not sure I agree: many kids who entered that search phrase may have been able to identify bin Laden but were looking for a biography or profile–a wise way to understand the news.

Finally, we don’t know much about the motivations and ideologies of the people who spontaneously celebrated. Were they into the dramatic narrative of a bad guy being gunned down by Navy Seals? Were they moved by the attainment of justice? Was their motivation basically patriotic? Or did they seek the “comraderie” of a shared, positive, public experience, as one of my CIRCLE colleagues suggests?

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