A New Generation Ponders the Meaning of Osama Bin Laden

Today's children never experienced the terrorist attacks that changed a generation on September 11, 2001. What lessons can we teach?


I keep thinking of the children. Not just the venerated ones who were killed or injured or who lost one parent or two in the ash and rubble of September 11, 2001. But the suffering ones who have lost their moms and dads, or uncles and aunts, or sisters and brothers over in Iraq and Afghanistan and everywhere else brave American troops have gone to fight as a result of the events of that dark day. And also the relatively lucky ones who weren't yet born or who were not old enough to know what it meant that the Twin Towers had fallen.

Osama Bin Laden

For that latter group -- which essentially includes any child in America under the age of 14 -- the announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden, and the resultant explosion of jubilation all across the country, must seem like a curious thing indeed. They've heard their parents talking about this ghostly figure for all these years. Perhaps they've seen the grainy videos of his image or heard the scruffy audiotapes of his voice. They know in an abstract way what he and his followers did -- even if they haven't yet necessarily been prompted to focus upon the gruesome details of what happened on those airplanes and to the poor people in those skyscrapers.

These children surely saw a change in their parents; something they probably have never seen before

But they were not present (or at least fully self-aware) at the creation of the historic drama that has tortuously led us to this satisfying day. They were not watching television when the massive debris clouds enveloped lower Manhattan. They did not see the brave firefighters rushing into those buildings. They did not see the second plane hit the second Tower. They did not witness the evacuation of the White House and the Capitol. They did not see a visibly emotional President George W. Bush standing atop the rubble next to that firefighter on September 14, 2001, pledging retribution. They don't remember a day in America -- like the rest of us do -- when no commercial planes flew through the sky.

Indeed, for them, there is no pre-9/11 America, a time when you could meet your party at an airport gate or get through security in a breeze without having to take off your shoes or have your genitals patted down. For them, there is no before, there is only the after. For them, there will never be the chance to compare and contrast the ways in which bin Laden and his followers changed in the span of just a few hours the very essence of the way in which we live and interact with the rest of the world. There is a gulf there, a fault line, really, that will last until the last American who remembers September 11, 2001 perishes from the face of the Earth. Only those who fully remember that day can fully appreciate what this news means. 

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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