This September will mark a series of milestones for me. Having completed my undergraduate studies a few months ago, I will not be returning to university in the fall. The month also marks my 21st birthday, as well as the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that devastated our nation and the world.
My generation was in junior high school in 2001. This is for us.
Every American knows where they were on 9/11. Remembers what they first saw, what they first felt, and the words that first left their mouth.
Mine were, “Woah, they’ve gotta make a movie out of this.”
I was 10 years old. That morning, my father woke me up for school earlier than usual and we sat together watching the television. I felt profoundly uncomfortable. Terrible things occurred on the news nightly, why was this any different? I couldn’t wrap my mind around it, but I knew something irrevocably changed that Tuesday morning.
My generation arguably took 9/11 harder than others. Those younger than us barely remember; it baffles me that there are 17-year-olds today who cannot recall a time when America was not at war. Those in high school and college in 2001 had the cognitive capacity to see the international community shifting. Adults at the time likely thought immediately of their children and loved ones, careers and futures.
But for us 10 to 12 year olds, it was different. We remember everything, but we knew nothing. We couldn’t define terrorism. War was an abstraction that only warranted reflection during the 4th of July and Memorial Day. The trauma of 9/11 stuck with us in a different way. We saw the unwavering adults we looked up to, break down. We lost parents, teachers and mentors who we thought invincible.
We were the first wave of children to see the modern polarization of America. I remember debates at the lunch table where each of us eager sixth graders parroted back and forth what we heard from our parents and the media: “Bush is evil!” “Bush is protecting America!” We also experienced the nascent racism that bubbled up — a Kashmiri friend of mine was attacked by his young peers declaring him a “terrorist!” We subconsciously became embroiled in the shifting social fabric of post-9/11 America.
I recall an episode of the radio program This American Life that aired shortly after Osama Bin Laden’s death. It discussed the American college student’s reaction to the news and why this generation came out in such droves to celebrate the death of a man. The reporter asked one Pennsylvanian undergrad why he cared so much as he was just a child during 9/11, it didn’t happen to him. His icy response was, “No. It didn’t happen to you guys. It happened to us.”
On that May evening that the world learned of Bin Laden’s death, I watched my Facebook feed ignite with status updates while my phone buzzed off the hook with texts declaring, “We got him!” Having attended university in Washington DC, I received many a phone call and photos from drunken friends wrapped in American flags, gleefully screaming in front of the White House. Indeed this sort of visceral reaction was unique to my generation. Regardless of our political beliefs, Osama Bin Laden was a figurehead representing everything we lost that day: our friends and family; our innocence; our security. For my generation, his death was somewhere between closure and lament.
We remember a time, however brief, when America was not at war. We ache for that fleeting sense of safety. Now, 10 years later, it is our turn to step into the world. My generation is graduating from college and inheriting a volatile global environment. 9/11 forced us to consider the future at a young age, and our life choices are significantly colored by the events of that day. I see my friends and peers graduating with degrees in international security or Arabic. Others who participated in Reserve Officer’s Training Corps are commissioning into the military and eligible for deployment in a few short years.
To the graduating classes of 2011 and 2012: we can never forget that we are the last generation to have lived in a peacetime United States. We spent the last 10 years coming to terms with and educating ourselves on the implications of that day. Let us harness this emotional power and build an American of integrity, resilience and harmony in the decade to come.