It has been said thousands of times over the past 10 years, and it is absolutely true: Everyone will always remember where they were when the news of the September 11, 2001 attacks broke. Like Pearl Harbor and the assassination of JFK, it is an event that is seared into the memory of all those able to see what happened; although in the case of 9/11 it was even more visceral, since images of the devastation were instantly broadcast around the world.
I was just 13 years old the day of the attacks. I remember coming in from gym class and hearing a fellow student saying, “The principal announced that the World Trade Center was bombed.” I knew that the WTC complex consisted of two very tall towers, but that was about it. The school staff wheeled TVs, normally used to show educational videos in class, into the hallways and tuned in to CNN. Everyone sat in awed silence at the images of smoke pouring out of the fatally damaged buildings, but no one was sure of what was going on.
The school day continued on its regular schedule, but every class focused on the events of the day. My English teacher guessed that 30,000 people would be dead. My Civics teacher said we should invade Saudi Arabia. Other students hoped that we would bomb the Palestinians who were shown dancing in the streets of Gaza. At the end of the day, I went home and watched the news with my family for the rest of the night. The world, especially in the eyes of a boy, had changed.
Before 9/11, I had little interest in, and even less understanding of, global events. My generation had grown up in a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity; too young to remember the end of the Cold War and the first war in Iraq. In our eyes, America was untouchable: incredibly wealthy, and beloved by all for its freedom and liberty.
The planes that scythed through the towers and the Pentagon that September morning also cut a deep hole into our psyche. Would there be more attacks? What city would be next? Why would someone want to kill American civilians? We sensed that the halcyon years of Pax Americana were coming to an end, and we were confused.
The ten years that have followed 9/11 have been eye-opening. Young Americans like myself learned about organizations like Al-Qaeda and the Taliban that abhor America and everything it stands for. As events progressed and the country’s wrath spread, we came to know strange names and places that have become part of the American lexicon: Osama bin Laden, Tora Bora, Fallujah, IEDs, waterboarding, the Underwear Bomber and, finally, Abbottabad, a town in Pakistan where an elite Navy SEAL unit provided a fitting bookend to one of the most traumatic decades in recent history.
We became used to far stricter security at airports, nightly reports of soldiers being maimed in Afghanistan and Iraq, and a previously unkown world seemingly full of threats and dangers. Events that took place a world away, like the London transit bombings, Mumbai’s day of terror, and conflict in Lebanon took on added meaning, since we now had an idea what others were going through.
On that autumn day 10 years ago, as airliners arced through an achingly blue sky into skyscrapers in Lower Manhattan, the rest of the world smashed through the consciousness of every young American. We were forced to be ignorant no longer, and the people and places we had never heard of, in all their good and evil, beauty and ugliness, became important. We were awakened to the world around us. Life would never be the same.