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Reflections on Recent Events in Light of Experience

by on May 06, 2011 6:00 AM

The news last Sunday night about the death of Osama bin Laden and our reaction to it as a nation caused me to take a hard look inside myself. Within minutes of watching President Obama’s speech, I saw pictures on Twitter of a crowd of Penn State students celebrating on Beaver Avenue. On television were similar and much larger crowds celebrating outside the White House and near Ground Zero in New York City.

The crowds looked to be a collection of younger people celebrating the death of a human being half a world away.

Maybe it is a function of my advancing age, maybe it is just a difference in perspective, but my initial reaction was much more introspective. My perspective is not any better or any worse than those students, just different.

The students range in age from 18 to 22 or so, so their perspective on bin Laden was much different than mine. On the day of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, they were 8 to 12 years old. For a child, that day’s events were interpreted much differently than for someone over 30 as I was then.

An 8-year-old seeing the destruction, the disruption of their lives, the national grief as the responsibility of one man leading a group of people bent on striking anywhere at any time is a pretty frightening thought. Bin Laden on the loose became the boogeyman of their nightmares, an unseen threat looming over the horizon, plotting to strike with a nameless, faceless army.

The students on the streets Sunday night have lived their entire adolescence in a nation at war with an elusive adversary who surfaced periodically with audio and videotaped threats.

My reaction to the attacks began the morning of 9/11, but they were shaped a week and a half later. On September 20, 2011, President George W. Bush gave an address Congress. The next morning as we began our staff meeting Coach Joe Paterno walked in. One of the coaches made an upbeat comment on what a terrific speech the president had given the night before.

I will never forget what Joe said next.

“You think?” he asked in a serious tone. “Did you hear what he said? Your children and your grandchildren may be fighting this war. I’m not being critical, but the history of that part of the world suggests this will be a long drawn-out event. The animosities span centuries.”

He wasn’t making an anti-war statement, just a statement amid the gallant rush to war alerting us to the reality of what we were facing as a nation. Almost a decade of war later, his words proved to be prophetic.

He drew a parallel for us to the excitement at the outset of the Civil War when people on both sides thought they’d be done by Christmas, 1861. History reminds us that the Civil War lasted a lot longer.

From the students on Beaver Avenue and from a wise father, I learned that how you see an event depends on your vantage point — a vantage molded by age and experience.

Sunday night before I drifted off to sleep, I thought how 9/11 had destroyed the lives of so many people. Not just those lost in the attacks, but those left behind and all the lives lost in the wars that ensued.

One of my high school classmates is now gone. Bill Cahir and I were among a handful of friends who brought back a defunct school newspaper at State College High School. When Bill joined the Marines after 9/11, he was well past the normal enlistment age but he fought his way into the corps. He was killed in action in Afghanistan in August 2009.

His death and the deaths of thousands of other men and women in the U.S. military left holes in the fabric of families’ lives across this country. Wounded soldiers came home changed by physical and mental wounds that time can never heal completely.

I also thought of the civilian men, women and children killed in the wars. Their parents are not so different from me. From the moment you first hold your child, you dream big dreams of a peaceful life for them. Images of screaming children scarred or wounded amid the chaos of war left indelible images that I related to my own children.

Sunday night, I thought of people like Bill and others whose lives were ended of changed by the current of history’s waters flowing from the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

The dam that was broken by bin Laden and his minions that day set forth a flood of war and pain that even his death will not cease. His death will not undo the evil his hands have woven.

I am not a vengeful man, but I felt relief Sunday night. Martin Luther King once said, “Let no man pull you low enough to hate him.”

I have tried to live by those wise words. But I confess one hope: that for just one moment in that early-morning raid, bin Laden experienced the fear, the pain he wrought on the thousands of victims as a result of his deeds and the chaos they unleashed in their wake.

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State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JayPaterno
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