The latest hullabaloo on the web is that –gasp!– teenagers don’t know who Osama bin Laden is. Specifically, 13 to 17 year-olds made up about two-thirds* of people using the search term, “Who is Osama bin Laden?” on Yahoo, following reports of his death late Sunday night.
Freelance writer Ned Hepburn brought attention to the phenomenon when he collected Tweets containing the same phrase.
What followed was a wave of mean-spirited incredulity:
@katgurl83 Can someone explain 9/11 to these ignorant teens?
@lexipanda Sad Statistic: Teens Led Search Spike for ‘Who is Osama bin Laden?’
@AlbertQMoy wow…they are people that actually live underneath a rock
@innerdaemon It’s official, humanity has diverged. There’s us and the Celebrotwats
You get the idea.
It’s really easy to play the “stupid teenager” card here. Too easy. And unfair.
Today’s teens were at best learning how to write in cursive and at worst just learning how to talk on 9/11. They have grown up in a post-terrorist-attack world, and, to their credit, have most likely heard bin Laden’s name before but just don’t equate it with a day that forever changed their lives.
When I was three, a plane blew up over Lockerbie, Scotland. Two years ago, the man responsible for this act of terrorism was released from prison and returned to Libya, to the outrage of many Americans. I can count on one hand the number of my peers who knew who this man was. (This excludes people I know from my alma mater, Syracuse University, which holds a memorial service each year in memory of the 35 SU students aboard the flight.) I can feel the counter-points coming at me like spears, so yes, let me acknowledge that it didn’t happen on American soil (though most of the victims were American), the number of lives lost on 9/11 was far greater (but no more or less valuable), and we didn’t fight two wars to bring the guy to justice (though it did take 13 years to put him in prison). But my larger point is that twenty years later people who were old enough to comprehend the situation still harbored angry feelings, and those of us who weren’t just took the news in stride. And yes, some of us may have Googled, “Who is the Lockerbie bomber?”
I hate to bring up this next point for fear of inciting accusations of racism, but I’m going to do it anyway. Since 9/11, how many times has a Muslim name appeared in the news in connection to some attempted bombing, foiled terrorist plot, regime overhaul, or other conflict in the Middle East? Without the raw emotion attached to the name bin Laden, perhaps teens simply just didn’t know why he was different than any other Islamic extremist, and why we seemed to care more about him than the others.
Put the shoe on the other foot: how many of you can name the man who ordered the attack on Pearl Harbor? Just because teens don’t recognize bin Laden’s name, doesn’t mean they don’t recognize the severity of the 9/11 attacks or support our troops or remain blissfully unaware of the wars we are fighting and the losses that we suffer every day.
So rather than chide and taunt the teens who immediately took to the web to gather information, let’s applaud them. They knew what they didn’t know, and set out to fix that immediately. (Whether the public schools are to blame for their lack of knowledge is not for me to judge.) They searched for information, they asked their peers. They even asked strangers, blindly requesting the world to feed them information, only to be served a healthy dose of ridicule by adults (who, by the way, are the parents and teachers of these supposedly ignorant teenagers).
These “Celebrotwats” could have gone on gossiping about the latest Hollywood couple, illegally downloading movies and songs, or sexting, but they didn’t. They could have had drunken fist-pumping sessions at major national landmarks (looking at you, grown-ups). But they didn’t. They simply wanted to know.
I find this tweet particularly apropos: @JustineBateman Pro Tip: Google “Osama Bin Laden” before you Twitter “Who is Osama Bin Laden?”
Uh, that’s exactly what they did. Cue teenage mantra: Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
*It would follow that one-third of the people asking this question are adults.