On January 20, 2009, a record number of nearly two million people personally witnessed the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States. Many, if not most of them, were in their teens and twenties. Members of the Millennial Generation (born 1982-2003) had come to Washington to celebrate Obama's election -- a victory their participation had clearly made possible.
Last night, on May 1, 2011, thousands of Millennials once again gathered in instant "flash mobs" in front of the White House, and in other urban centers, to celebrate the death of the person whose murderous actions forever shaped their lives. In authorizing the successful operation to take out bin Laden, President Obama redeemed the faith the generation had placed in his leadership.
The attacks of September 11, 2001 occurred when most Millennials were in school and it remains the moment most remember as the day they realized the dangers of the world around them. Safety and security concerns became a permanent part of their lives. Their parents created "play dates" as a way to make sure they were never out of sight of an adult as they grew up and demanded more and more legislated protections for their safety. Cell phones became a safety tool to assure continuous knowledge of their children's whereabouts, "in case, God forbid, something should happen to them."
But this generation, like the previous civic-minded G.I. Generation that it is most similar to, did not shirk from the challenges this new world of "homeland security" presented. Volunteer service became the norm of the Millennials' school day. Interest in how their government worked and who was leading it soared. Millennials, who experienced 9/11 while in high school, became energized, involved voters when they graduated. And the valor of those who volunteered for military service was indelibly inscribed in American history books as a result of yesterday's operation.
One of those activists, Matt Segal, President of OurTime, a national Millennial membership organization, described the central place the man, whose killing all Americans celebrated, has held in the generation's imagination. "We've grown up with Osama bin Laden as the defining villain, the central antagonist of our generation."
While the youthfulness of the spontaneous celebrations last night surprised some observers, every Millennial has lived with the looming presence of bin Laden as a continuing reminder that the work of the generation in fixing the world had not yet achieved its first goal in much the same way that their G.I. Generation great-grandparents must have felt about Hitler nearly seven decades ago.
Segal also made it clear why his generation was so ready to celebrate the news of bin Laden's death. "Our generation finally gets to see what progress looks like, what it feels like when American persistence actually leads to results." Rather than being a surprise, the generation's late night partying to shouts of "USA!" and exuberant flag waving, should be a signal to Americans of all ages that this generation has just begun the task of remaking the country in its image. With bin Laden out of the way, it's time to let Millennials lead the way in tackling all the challenges that continue to confront America's civic consciousness.