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American teenagers now share an experience with my mother. It's one I have spent a lifetime trying to understand, and never could. But in one horrific moment, every young American grasped it.

Just as my mom heard it when she was 18, word that our nation was under attack reached today's young as they sat in a high school classroom. As with her generation, the ambivalence of youth suddenly and violently collided with life's seriousness of purpose. And like her, while they may consign their pain to a secret part of their being, today's teens shall forever view life's mysteries through a prism of tears shed too early.

If my mother's generation lost its innocence at Pearl Harbor, then terrorism's ugly black bolt out of a clear blue sky took this generation's adolescence. Before last week, we were content watching "Survivor" on television. Now we pray for real ones to emerge. "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire" has given way to who among us wouldn't relinquish every penny if it would restore just one life.

Vanished along with the World Trade Center was a self-absorbed nation. And its wake has bestowed on every young American an obligation and an opportunity. Their task is to hold fast to those institutions and practices that render America unique.

And their chance is to expand the idea of public service, and thus breathe new life into what it means to be an American. In the process, this generation will define us, our nation and our sense of community for perhaps centuries to come.

America's youth can meet their obligation by insisting that our nation's coming actions do not diminish our standing as a democracy governed by the rule of law. Retaliation creates endless retribution. Justice produces peace. Then they must aggressively engage in public matters and commit to public service. And they can begin by knowing our own community and all of its diverse citizens. Western New York includes members of more than two dozen faiths, including several of Mideastern origin. So a good first step in understanding different cultures and religions around the world is to reach out and understand ourselves.

Young people must reinvent the notion of heroic service. And in the bravery of those who stopped one hijacked jet from reaching its target, they have a high standard to which they can aspire.

As with all life-transforming events, these attacks produced new heroes and affirmed old ones. Firefighters plunging headlong up the steps of exploding towers, as if taking their own stairway to heaven, evoke both untold admiration and the realization that public service is not restricted to government work.

And husbands calling wives from doomed planes reflect the bonds and rewards of the most noble human service, that to family. Through the miracle of technology, the last people they spoke with were those they loved. Through the miracle of faith, the next person they spoke with was God.

In the time of Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed four freedoms essential to the American experience: freedom of expression, to worship, from want and from fear. By helping restore our freedom from fear, young Americans will ensure that new life emerges from unspeakable loss, and that our brothers and sisters did not die in vain.

KEVIN P. GAUGHAN is a local civic leader. This is excerpted from remarks he delivered to students at Frontier Central High School in Hamburg.

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