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Published: Thursday, 5/5/2011

COMMENTARY

Teaching children about bin Laden's world

BY MARILOU JOHANEK
BLADE COMMENTARY WRITER

For nearly a decade, I've kept a framed nighttime photograph of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center hanging above my desk. The giant skyscrapers glow distinctively over lower Manhattan.

The day the world learned of Osama bin Laden's just demise, I took the picture down to explain the significance of his death to my kids.

They were in diapers the day America was attacked. I confess I hardly noticed them after I got an urgent call to turn on the TV. Alone with my oblivious babies, I stared at the stunning images on the screen, not knowing what to think.

The first plane could have been a fluke, an awful accident of pilot error or mechanical distress. But not the second one. As I watched along with millions of other Americans, the second plane seemed purposeful as it sliced into the second tower on live television.

But the unthinkable, that we could actually be under siege, didn't occur to me until the breaking coverage in New York was interrupted to show the Pentagon in flames. A plane had plowed into that landmark as well.

We held our breath, prayed, and mentally accounted for family members scattered across the country. Was my brother in New York City OK? His wife worked on Wall Street.

When word came that still another plane had slammed into a rural Pennsylvania field, one of the toddlers climbed into my lap to snuggle. I braced for more but, thank God, it was over.

Soon enough, the surreal would become sobering for a nation that no longer felt invincible. We had been violently broadsided by an enemy primed to hit where it hurt.

In real time, we had witnessed a massacre of innocents unfold. We gasped as TV screens showed giant skyscrapers teeter, with victims trapped inside, then crumble into billowing clouds of choking dust and debris.

We empathized with throngs of people running for their lives. But mostly we were dazed onlookers, watching in disbelief.

Hour by hour, Sept. 11, 2001, ticked by in unforgettable clarity. What began as a brilliant late-summer morning abruptly disintegrated into a smoldering nightmare.

It shook our sense of security and tortured us with the uncertainty of when or if terrorists would strike again. Eventually, we moved collectively into the daylight and resolutely began to pick up the pieces of our shattered psyches, shoulder the pain of irreplaceable loss, and rebuild.

For an all-too-brief time, we bonded as one nation determined to avenge our loss. Our hearts were heavy but hardened in the pursuit of justice.

Yet somewhere along the way, we lost our flag-waving unity and military focus to destroy the Saudi who dreamed up 9/11. Launching an unrelated war in Iraq diverted resources and lessened the urgency to find the terrorist icon who inspired the devotion of a militant global network.

Years of missed opportunities later, when the elusive bin Laden was discovered and killed by U.S. Special Forces -- with the blessings of their bold commander in chief -- it was almost anticlimactic. Many assumed he was already long dead.

President Obama's genuine mission-accomplished is heralded with relief by a grateful country. But as I tried to explain the significance of bin Laden's demise to my children, I couldn't shake a sense of foreboding.

They can't begin to understand the gravitas of the moment, let alone what went before. They didn't see what we saw -- planes deliberately flying into skyscrapers, fireballs erupting, the confusion, the smoke, the doomed people hanging out of broken windows trying to escape.

They didn't have any of our simmering hostility toward the fanatical founder of al-Qaeda, who taunted us with videos. An old photograph of the Twin Towers didn't put a lump in their throats.

I'm glad they were spared the visceral and emotional impact that the memories of 9/11 vividly brought back this week. Inevitably, they'll learn that the world of extremists knows no boundaries.

But I hope they'll be more aware of that abiding danger than we were, and fearless despite it. The young who gathered spontaneously to cheer the end of a monster and celebrate America got it right.

Marilou Johanek is a Blade commentary writer.

Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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