A New Generation Ponders the Meaning of Osama Bin Laden

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

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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. 

This helps explain why, as the stunning and decisive news broke, these children surely saw a change in their parents; something they probably have never seen before. As a nation, again in the span of just a few hours, America was both transported back to the fire of 9/11 and freed in part from one of the surly bonds to it. And so the children, the millions of them who never saw in real time all the funerals and the pain and the suffering, saw instead Sunday night in front of the White House and at Ground Zero thousands of their fellow citizens dancing and celebrating the violent death of a man -- a sight they surely have never seen before in this country and likely won't ever see again.

They saw and heard their parents calling friends and family to share the news. A remorseless killer had been remorselessly skilled. Another American enemy had been put to rest. The man who orchestrated the biggest crime in American history had finally and brutally paid for it. For these children, it was perhaps the only chance they'll ever have to feel from the raw emotion of their parents as though they, too, were somehow a part of the events of 9/11. It was as though a brief window into our past had opened up and allowed our kids to feel just a tiny bit of the pain we all felt then. What a remarkable moment in their lives and in the life of our nation. 

As the father of a curious son who was two years old on 9/11, I tried to think Sunday night of the "teachable moments" that necessarily came with Bin Laden's death. But I confess it is still too early to know for sure. Was it that perseverance pays off? Was it that revenge is a dish best served cold? Was it that there can be justice in a typically unjust world?  Was it that there is no use running and hiding from the choices we make in life? All I could manage to say was that a warped man who had brought so much suffering to so many around the world would no longer be able to do so. That will have to suffice, at least for now. 

It took 3,519 days -- from September 11, 2001 to May 1, 2011 -- to bring justice to Bin Laden. That's nearly as long as it took the nations of the world to fight both of their World Wars during the last century. The United States is very different today from the country that Al Qaeda attacked -- and each day's death and birth notices tell us that the inexorable shift continues. The generation of children who came after 9/11 will have to pay a steep price for the decisions the rest of us have made on their behalf. As it is for the rest of us, then, today is the first day of the rest of their lives.

Image credit: Reuters/Mike Segar

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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, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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