President Joe Biden ordered the death of one of the masterminds behind 9/11, Ayman al-Zawahri, over the weekend. On July 31, two Hellfire missiles equipped with pop-out swords slammed into a balcony in Kabul, killing the terrorist leader who was partly responsible for the attacks on September 11, 2001.
Many celebrated the killing, others used it as a chance to discuss 9/11, terrorism, the Taliban, the United States’ foreign policy, etc. Some tweeted that they had no clue who Zawahri was; others were mad about this fact, lamenting that a generation born after 9/11 perhaps hasn’t grappled with an event that for many is mostly a meme.
Podcast host Saagar Enjeti shared an anecdote from someone he described as a Gen Z fan. “Every once in a while, an old guy like Zawahri will die and a bunch of old people like you will celebrate and tell me how bad he was,” Enjeti said the presumed teen told him. “And I have no idea who he was or why he mattered at all."
New York Times journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Evan Hill shared similar thoughts on Twitter. “The fact is, a lot of people even my age don't remember Zawahri, and many young people never have known,” he said on Twitter. “Do a search for Zawahri on TikTok, there's nothing. This isn't an endorsement of any position; it's a reflection on how even something like 9/11 can fade in popular knowledge.”
Hill is right. A cursory glance at TikTok reveals that there aren’t that many videos explaining who Zawahri was or why he was important. But that doesn’t necessarily mean 9/11 has faded from popular knowledge. More likely, it means that the U.S. did an incredible job pushing the narrative that Osbama bin Laden was the mastermind. It’s not that people have forgotten who Zawahri is. They never knew to begin with. A search of TikTok for “Bin Laden” returns thousands of results.
When Seal Team Six killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, everyone cared. Kids, especially, cared a lot. They’d grown up in the shadow of the 9/11 attacks and celebrated wildly when his death was announced. News outlets ran stories about kids celebrating his death. It became a culture war issue. Wired published a piece titled “How to Explain to Your Kids Why It's OK to Celebrate Osama bin Laden's Death.” One of the reasons no one cares about Zawahri is because, to most of us, the boogeyman of 9/11 was vanquished more than 10 years ago.
A now deleted Tweet from Hill is more interesting than his observations about Gen Z and more instructive about the current moment. “It’s been 20 years, 10 month and 21 days since 9/11. Like interrupting the Beatles on Ed Sullivan to announce they’d killed Heinrich Himmler,” Hill said.
It’s natural and probably healthy for people to be ignorant of the minutiae of wars of the previous generation. It’s natural that not everyone remembers who Zawahri is (if they ever knew). Two decades after the end of the war in Vietnam, about the same distance we are now from 9/11. What did I know about the war my father fought in? Next to nothing.
Just as the kids watching the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show lived in a world shaped by World War II, and the child version of me playing Wolfenstein 3-D lived in a world shaped by America’s failures in Vietnam, we are now living in a world that exists in the shadow of 9/11.
The U.S. left Afghanistan a year ago. There are Generation Z veterans of Afghanistan who were born after 9/11. Most of us still take our shoes off at the airport and step through body scanners before boarding a plane. The Department of Homeland Security has only grown stronger since it was created in the aftermath of 9/11. Jon Stewart is still on a screen, yelling at Congress about its inaction around healthcare for veterans of the wars started in the aftermath. The drone that killed Zawahri is the apotheosis of technological developments around remote killing that would not have been possible without 9/11 and its legacy.
Zawahri’s death, then, is score-settling. It’s the execution of a ghost, the destruction of a largely forgotten symbol. But, even if we didn’t know him, that ghost had and still has power over us. We still live in the world he and his collaborators created when he sent two planes into the Twin Towers.
A lack of Zawahri TikToks is only a big deal if you lived through the trauma of 9/11. The fact that TikTok isn’t filled with videos of Gen Z celebrating his death might signal that there’s a generation that’s ready to make decisions about the world that are not so influenced by that trauma. Considering how much of the world was shaped by making rash decisions in the wake of 9/11, that might not be a bad thing.