Why Bin Laden’s Death Was Celebrated Like a Sports Win

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Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Some of the most striking images in the wake of the announcement that U.S. forces had killed Osama bin Laden came from college campuses around the country. Ohio State students leaped into the campus’s Mirror Lakes to splash and scream. At West Virginia, couches were burned. At Penn State, students ran into the street, crowd surfing and singing “Born in the USA.” (An entire new generation of Americans has refused to actually listen to the lyrics of that song, apparently.) They were unadulterated, spontaneous explosions of joy. And what it looked like was that those students had just watched their varsity teams win a championship.

Seriously: One of West Virginia’s most popular fan sites is actually called We Must Ignite This Couch. (Note to self: Avoid West Virginia.) The photos and videos that hit the Web of all the celebrations looked all the world like fans of a team that just nailed the last-second field-goal/the three-pointer as time expired/the grand slam in the bottom of the ninth. For that matter, the gatherings at Ground Zero and Times Square weren’t all that different than the street festivals when the Yankees won the World Series; find me another time it’s acceptable and legal to hang from light posts. It was the only option: This is just how we celebrate EVERYTHING.

This is probably healthy. Sports channel unacceptable, usually stifled emotions into non-harmful outlets. It is not okay to scream horrible names at your neighbor or co-worker, but in sports, if you pay for your seat, you are free (encouraged, even) to scream at Tom Brady. The same goes for the other extremes. What’s the last event that made you leap out of your seat and start jumping up and down and yelling? It was probably a Derek Jeter double, back when Derek Jeter was physically capable of hitting a double. Sports allow us to be demonstrative in ways we are unable to in our daily lives — to hold nothing back, in a precivilization way.

So it is perfectly reasonable that, at a moment of pent-up emotion released, a beacon of positive news after nine years, we would run out and start jumping on top of parked cars, or chanting “Sha-na-na, say hey, good bye.” Sometimes, news in the real world is so invigorating that those true emotional selves just come out. Of course, it looks like sports fans cheering. Happiness always looks the same. Sports are based in reactions, instinctive, visceral, primal: They are played that way, and they are watched that way. When you saw the cheers on the campuses, they were sincere in a way that very few things are anymore. They were jubilation without a pithy 140-character retort. Sometimes you just wanna jump in a lake, you know?