Andy Colwell/AP

Penn State senior Jake Librizzi holds an American flag as he and others fill Beaver Canyon Avenue in downtown State College, Pa., on Sunday night shortly after learning about the death of Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

SEATTLE -- You could call them "Generation bin Laden."

Now college-age, most were not even teenage when the planes hit. Sleepy-eyed and uncomprehending, they listened as adults tried to explain what happened while protecting them from the horror of it.

Now in their late teens to early 20s, they're the generation whose lives have been dominated by a "war on terror" that has colored political races, shaped budget discussions and spun policy decisions. Lurking at the center has been the terrorist known to all: Osama bin Laden.

"Every kid has what they're afraid of -- monsters, boogeymen," said Evan Smith, 19, a sophomore at the University of Washington. "It's kind of an embarrassing admission, but the thing I was afraid of, and had nightmares about, were terrorists -- men in ski masks, with AK-47s. That was the image I got that I should be afraid of as an American citizen."

News that their monster was finally dead brought thousands of young people to the streets Sunday evening outside the White House and in Times Square, their images captured in news photos and footage as they cheered and waved U.S. flags.

Closer to home, there were fireworks and celebrations, too. The attacks in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, and the decade-long aftermath have loomed large for everyone in his generation, said Chris Jordan, 22, a University of Washington graduate student.

"It's been such a dominant story line in our news over the last decade, I think it's really shaped a lot of young people's thoughts," he said.

Many college students say they believe bin Laden's death has closed only a chapter -- not the book: Political, religious and economic issues are still unfolding.

"The death of Osama, it's symbolic for all of us because we all grew up knowing this was the ultimate evil," Smith said. "But where do we go from here?"

For many of this generation, the world changed while they were still in elementary or middle school. Like baby boomers whose young minds snapped mental Polaroids of their surroundings when President John F. Kennedy was shot, many of these students can recall exactly where they were when the planes hit the World Trade Center.

Kevin Eggers was in seventh-grade. "My sister and I were sitting on the stairway railing. My mom, who was not very emotional, had tears in her eyes," recalls Eggars, now 22 and student-body president at Seattle University. "It was one of two times I remember seeing my mother cry. I remember thinking: 'This is real serious.' "

Little by little, they learned what it was all about. It was serious, enough to launch wars, deploy troops, spend the country into debt. Along the way, victories were declared, but bin Laden was still alive.

Over the years, some, like Smith, figured they'd never catch him. "It kind of became a non-issue for me. I figured this is just a symbolic enemy we're using to justify our war."

Bin Laden's death at the hands of U.S. agents Sunday came to most of these digitally connected students through Facebook and text messages. "I was glued to a Facebook feed to see what other people's reaction was," said Jordan.

Like the 9/11 attacks, the death was a uniting force for those with differing politics, Jordan said.

"He's one of those huge figures. He was always kind of Public Enemy No. 1 in the mind of my generation. Even though people were really unsatisfied and unhappy about the Iraq war, people still hated him for what he did, and wanted to see him get what he deserved."

Some were uncomfortable with the celebrating: the crowd at the White House, the cheering and the firecrackers some heard near the UW campus.

"It was disgusting," said Joseph Heffernan, 22, a UW senior majoring in the comparative history of ideas, who spent several years in the Middle East during his childhood. "It just shows how much American exceptionalism is a part of our culture, because of the way we were jubilantly celebrating the illegal assassination of an -- undoubtedly evil -- man."

Many said they were proud: of the country's intelligence efforts, of President Barack Obama for making good on a promise, and that bin Laden was killed without a massive, casualty-rich airstrike. And they liked Obama's idea that bin Laden's death, like 9/11, might be a catalyst for unity.

Still, bin Laden's "ideals are not going to die with him," said Austin Mesina, a 20-year-old biochemistry major.

Said another 20-year-old UW student, Jeff Wang: "If we don't focus on the issues themselves instead of one person, nothing is ever going to be solved."