Defense Media Network

Dad, Who’s bin Laden?

It was bright and early Monday morning, May 2, 2011, and I was up, dressed and pumped for the day. I had on my blue power suit with a crisp white dress shirt and my bold American flag tie, and I was raring to go. While I had only had, at the most, three hours of sleep, my energy level was at its peak and I was one very happy camper. Normally with that much sleep, I’d have felt like hell, but this was not just any morning. It was the morning after the world had learned we had eliminated Osama bin Laden.

When I got the breaking news alerts on the Blackberries® the night before, any sense of exhaustion I had from a busy weekend of family activities evaporated. Surprise and adrenaline can do that. Adrenaline still seemed to be coursing through my veins hours after hearing the news and seeing the president announce it as well as watching some of the ensuing media coverage afterward.

“Who’s bin Laden?”

It always seems to be a push for everyone in the house to get started on a Monday. Kids of any age are not exactly chomping at the bit to get to school after a fun weekend, and mine were no different. My oldest two children seemed to pick up the vibe that something was very different with me that morning, asking their Mom, “Why is Dad in such a good mood this morning?”

As I walked back into the kitchen with my car keys and briefcase, my wife replied to them, “Last night the president announced that we killed bin Laden and your Dad and I are very happy about it.”

President Barack Obama

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on the mission against Osama bin Laden in the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. Seated, from left, are: Brig. Gen. Marshall B. “Brad” Webb, assistant commanding general, Joint Special Operations Command; Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough; Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Standing, from left, are: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen; National Security Advisor Tom Donilon; Chief of Staff Bill Daley; National Security Advisor to the Vice President Tony Binken; Director for Counterterrorism Audrey Tomason; Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan; and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Official White House photo by Pete Souza

Not missing a beat, my son, the middle child, looked right at me and said, “Who’s bin Laden?”

Almost in unison, my jaw and that of my wife dropped open in shock at his question.

All of the excitement that I had over the news of the night before was stopped cold.

I looked at him and have to admit I was struck speechless.

I immediately thought to myself: “What do you mean who’s bin Laden?! How could you not know who bin Laden was? For crying out loud, I’ve spent almost a decade working in homeland security and you don’t know who bin Laden is?!”

It was one of those moments you have as a parent when you think, “How could my child not know this?”

Here was the man behind the single greatest assault on America short of Pearl Harbor and my children didn’t know it. After years of searching every godforsaken cave and hole in the ground, our intelligence and military forces had finally found him (in suburban Pakistan no less) and taken him out, and my children didn’t know who he was.

I guess I could have popped off a verbal zinger in frustration, but in one of those rare occasions, my brain engaged before my mouth. As dumbfounded as I was by his question, I knew it was offered innocently and his question was genuine.  He did not know who Osama bin Laden was or why his parents were so happy to see him dead.

For as much as my kids knew about me working in the homeland security arena and my wife and I having a dinner table where we would talk about current events and different things with them, the name bin Laden was not one that was bandied about in regular conversation. Why should it? Everyone on the planet knew who was behind the murder of nearly 3,000 people on a gorgeous September day, so there was no need to talk about it. It was a fact.

Ironically that fact was not part of my middle son’s life, or for that matter his older sister’s or younger brother’s either. While America’s innocent belief in a secure airspace and protected shores had been stolen on Sept. 11, for my kids and many others like them, their world remained safely cocooned within dance rehearsals, sports practices, and neighborhood scooter rides.

Call it what you will, but in remembering that stunning Monday morning question of several months back, I’ve found it to be a silver lining that their lives could go forward in such normal ways and not be haunted by one of the world’s great menaces.

That fact flew right in the face of the many children of those lost in the 9/11 attacks. For some of those kids, they never knew, or had no recollection of, their moms or dads because they were either too young or had not been born yet. There could be no doubt that they would know who Osama bin Laden was. He was the man who ruptured their lives and left an empty chair at the family dinner table. My kids fortunately did not know of those experiences – a blessing for which I am forever grateful.

Children have an amazing way of putting events and life and perspective. Their candor and occasional inopportune timing can make us cringe at times, but they may also be the most resilient of us all. Life for them is the here and now, and their future is about the people in their immediate orbit. Bin Laden was never part of my kids’ immediate orbit, so there was no reason why they should have known him.

Defining bin Laden and explaining what he stood for is one of those experiences where you are forced to reveal how tough and difficult the world can really be. I can’t say I enjoyed the conversation I had with my kids that morning, explaining who bin Laden was as I drove them to school. They certainly knew about the various 9/11 attacks and that many people had died, but as to knowing who was behind it, it was of no importance to them until the morning of May 2, 2011. It was just something that had happened.

Courtesy of the U.S. special operations forces and two well-placed bullets, we’ve now put the end punctuation to the sentence of bin Laden’s life. As improper as it may have been for me to have openly relished his abrupt demise and ultimate disposal in the sea, talking about who he was is something parents and all of us have had to do. Talking about the evildoers of history (e.g., Hitler, Stalin, etc.) and their horrible actions falls under the immediate category of the famous quote by George Santayana: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Despite our historical recollections and evidence there will always be those who deny the existence of evil people; attributing such acts to some sort of conspiracy or just blatantly supporting the offending inhuman actions. As a parent, I’m charged with aiding those I helped bring life to in getting ready to deal with those types of persons as well as other difficulties in a very tough world.

The advantage I have in my favor is that for every bin Laden and member of his 19-man 9/11 suicide squad I have to try and explain, I can point out thousands, if not millions of men and women in and out of uniform who make a positive difference in the lives of many every day. In that type of conversation, and in life, those odds will always be in my favor, and I know I have three people in my charge who will join them one day.


Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...