The End of an Era

Last Sunday, President Obama announced to the world that Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the terrorist attacks of September 11, had been killed in an attack conducted by the United States.

For the most part, current Oberlin students came of age in a time of fear and uncertainty created by bin Laden. Whether through the PATRIOT Act, Hollywood’s airbrushing of the Twin Towers, or the protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the results of bin Laden’s actions significantly shaped daily life during our formative years.

As time put us farther and farther from 9/11, however, it became easier and easier to start feeling as if the post-9/11 world had always existed, that there were always terrorists, that the U.S. and Americans had always been hated by a group of shadowy Islamic extremists hell-bent on killing them at all costs.

But people our age — that is, 18 to 23 year olds — are at the edge of what will become a significant generational gap in the coming years. We remember life before 9/11.

To us, there was an age of naïvité when everyday life lacked the macabre undercurrent that constantly warned of our imminent destruction. It all seems silly to children today, but we remember when all people had to deal with was the overhyped Y2K scare, those horrible dial-up noises and a president who “did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

Our age group’s innocence was also bolstered by a lack of experiential knowledge of Pearl Harbor, World War II or the entirety of the Cold War, whether it be the perpetual unease that spawned “hot” wars of Korea and Vietnam, the U.S.’s close call with nuclear holocaust during the Cuban Missile Crisis or the fall of the Berlin Wall that promised a dramatic ease to world tensions. We also don’t understand what it feels like to see extremely visible national heroes, such as JFK and MLK, suddenly and violently lose their lives. Until 9/11, our innocence as a generation was intact.

But when the Towers fell, we lost the comfort that roughly 10 years of relative stability had created. We all remember being somewhere, probably a classroom, watching video after video of the second plane crashing into the World Trade Center, those visceral images becoming scarred into our minds during an age when we were most impressionable.

Our response was swift. We flew our flags, gave long-overdue respect to police and firefighters and, to the tune of an 89 percent approval rating, rallied around the president who wanted bin Laden “dead or alive.”

Regardless of our geography, somehow we were all in this together, and now, with the death of bin Laden, it would not be surprising to find many of us reflecting with a host of difficult emotions surrounding this universally jarring event and the coming-of-age maturity that followed.

But with bin Laden’s demise we must also note that in another 10 years Oberlin’s incoming first-year class will likely contain students who weren’t even alive during 9/11. Theirs will be a class of new ideas, perspectives and defining moments. With the same child-like naïveté with which we see our parents’ history, they will approach ours.

Osama bin Laden is dead, and with his death comes an end, of sorts, to a difficult chapter in American history. Whether we like it or not, our generation is inextricably connected to this man and the history he shaped.

Now, without the looming presence of this previously elusive terrorist, our generation stands paradoxically together and alone, plowing forward with the grit, vigor and tenacity only a generation with our universal experiences can muster, as we move toward a new, undefined destiny that bin Laden’s death has freed us to pursue.