It might not be a bad sign that so many teenagers didn't know who he was
"Who is Osama Bin Laden?" sounds like a ridiculous question. For just shy of a decade, Americans all lived with a shared bogeyman in our minds, a name that was longhand for evil whether you were in Tulsa or Times Square.
Yet according to Yahoo Search trends, on May 1, the question was the fifth-most-searched phrase among all "Osama bin Laden" searches on the site.* Sixty-six percent of those searches came from teenagers, who would have been small children when the twin towers fell. Web sites like Boing Boing and even a quickly contructed Tumblr published screengrabs of confused Twitter queries from users who'd seemingly never heard of him. There were pages upon pages of queries mostly very young-seeming people, American and otherwise, interrupting tweets about exams and cute boys or girls and (most of all) Justin Bieber to wonder things like "WHO IS OSAMA & WHY IS EVERYONE MAKING THEIR STATUS ABOUT HAPPY WHY HE IS DEAD?" or "lol I feel retarted cuz I haven't heard of him." Pretty soon the disapproving tweets far outnumbering the ignorant originals: "If any of you people do not know who Osama Bin Laden is ... damn you're pathetic," went one typical scolding.
More specifically: It was a failure of our education system (and this was even before considering the grammar and punctuation). It was a slap in the face to those who'd lost someone on 9/11 or in the wars since. The instinct to take to Twitter as resource-of-first-resort said something frightening about the way the rising generation consumes information, and augurs dire things for the future of facts and truth; so does the ease with which we can block out anything we don't seek out specifically on the ever-specialized Web. The myopic worldview, the fixation on pop culture (seriously, there was a disproportionate amount of Bieber iconography) went straight to the heart of why America gets a bad rep in some parts of the world.
Sure. But consider it from another angle: For those of us who were teenagers when the towers fell, our high school and college years were coated with an impossible-to-escape layer of fear. I can't think of Bunsen burners without picturing the ones that stood near the classroom TV where I watched the second plane fly into the tower. The first time I drank beer, I ended up weeping about the Iraq war. Shouldn't there be a tiny part of us that's glad Bin Laden's become less and not more ubiquitous over the last decade? Even the many newscasters who embarrassingly substituted Obama for Osama seemed to be reinforcing this: The latter wasn't a name on everyone's lips any more. We might still be worried about terrorism and war, but our anxiety has diffused, no longer palpable over this one central repository of fear.
Last week, I ended up exchanging e-mails with a 16-year-old girl in Nebraska who'd written one of the "Who Is Bin Laden?" tweets. She's in the marching band and debate club, and she tweets mostly about her crushes on the members of the born-again rock group plastered across her Twitter wallpaper, and Robert Downey Jr. (a different sort of born-again). She gets her news from Twitter and the chatter at school; she prefers posing questions on Twitter before Google. Her friends helped her out with the Osama answer pretty quickly. It's not that she's never heard of 9/11--they talk about it in school every year--but what she mostly remembers about that September of first grade is the way her parents were worried that their vacation would be cancelled because plane travel was restricted. "I don't worry much about terrorism. It's never really affected me that much considering how young I was last time there was a terrorist attack, " she wrote.
One of the catchphrases repeated constantly in that decade-ago post-9/11 period was "If we stop doing such-and-such activity, the terrorists have won." So we went on booking overseas flights and creating ever-more baroque reality television, but always with this lurking knowledge that there was this very powerful man out there who hated everything about us. We knew who Osama Bin Laden was, but we didn't know where he was--other than in the back of our heads during mid-flight turbulence or at the sound of unexpected sirens, the shared bogeyman we all had. I can't even remember what my worst-case, dark-night-of-the-soul scenario was in those years pre-Osama and post-Cold War nuclear drills. I'm sure my 16-year-old pen pal has plenty of fears, but from my nostalgic perch, I'd like to imagine she stays up at night worrying only about her chemistry tests or a date to the prom. Hers seems an oddly heartening ignorance, blissfully innocent: After all if American teenagers aren't allowed a few years to be utterly unreflective, willfully unaware, publicly obnoxious, and passionately fixated on pop idols, whither our culture?
* This story originally indicated that "Who is Osama bin Laden" was the fifth-most-searched phrase on Yahoo overall for May 1. We regret the error.