At 10 p.m. on May 1, 2011, like most students, I was procrastinating studying for a final. As I glanced at my Twitter feed, I noticed a few people talking about the president giving a press conference about national security at 10:30. At first, a few people thought that Gadhafi had been killed. It was, after all, the height of the Arab Spring, and his death seemed plausible. Soon, rumors were spreading that it might be Osama bin Laden who was dead.
Thirty minutes later, the president still hadn’t spoken and the floor lounge of Hughes 6 was slowly filling up with people excitedly wondering if this was actually true. By 10:45, the major networks were confirming it: Osama bin Laden was dead. Less than twenty minutes later, I was out on the shuttle, trying to catch the last Red Line train to Farragut North to join the crowds of people outside the White House, celebrating the fact that the villain of our generation was dead.
Most of the people there were college students. After all, there are very few other people with the time, inclination or ability to go down to the White House in the middle of a Sunday night. Those adults who came preferred to stay out of the mosh pit in front of the gates. Later that night, when exhaustion and a lingering sense of guilt over procrastinating to study drove us home, I began reading about the protests online and was dismayed by the attitude I saw.
The media was condescending and dismissive towards our generation’s perspective. Behind their criticism of our celebration was a thinly-veiled criticism that we were too young—that because we couldn’t understand the attacks the way they did, the attacks weren’t as traumatic for us.
The criticism gnawed at me because nothing could be farther from the truth. September 11 was one of the biggest influences on our lives. International politics and strife wormed its way into our everyday lives. Two wars defined the rest of our childhood and early adulthood. We grew up expecting to endure security checks everywhere we went. We can barely remember a time before terrorism was a household concept.
For the past six months, I’ve been working to counter this assumption that our experiences weren’t important, and to provide an insight into how the September 11 attacks influenced our generation. The narratives I’ve gathered have been truly incredible. Young enough to know fear, panic and confusion, but not quite old enough to know what it all meant, I’d argue our experiences were just as bad, if not worse, than those of our parents.
Take Sean Vera, for example. He was 10-years-old and living in New York City at the time of the
attacks. He was nodding off in class, looking at the Manhattan skyline out of the window of his classroom when he saw the first plane slam into the tower. The class sat in a stunned panic until the principal collected them and brought them down into the gymnasium, where they were spared from watching the crash of the second plane and the collapse of the towers.
Vera and his brother were picked up a few hours later by their dad, who walked them the two miles back home. They passed by St. Vincent’s hospital, where doctors waited on the street to treat survivors who were never going to come. For the next few days, there would be no escaping the images of the attacks. Years later, his first instinct would be to look skyward if a plane passed overhead.
In Fort Knox, Ky., 8-year-old Sarah Dunlap was awoken by the screaming of a bomb siren. She got out of bed just in time to watch the second plane crash into the second tower on television. Fort Knox went into lockdown, and she and her mother spent the rest of the day watching the news. But her family’s attention was on the Pentagon, where friends of her family worked. Later that evening they finally heard that everyone they knew was fine, but Sarah knew that big, potentially devastating changes would be coming to her military community.
Across the country, 8-year-old Dorothy Joseph was woken up by her mother, and walked into the living room just in time to watch the second plane hit the tower. She spent the morning in front of the television, watching everything happen live. Dorothy knew what terrorism was; after all her synagogue had been practicing lock-down drills since she was four years old, but there had never been anything on this scale. And nothing could erase the horror of everything she saw that day from her mind.
Lisa Tannenbaum didn’t know it was a terrorist attack at first. When her mom pulled her out of school, she thought that it was because the school had received a bomb threat. On their way home, her mom stopped at a 7-11 to stock up on supplies in case they needed to evacuate. It wasn’t until they got home that Lisa found out about what had happened, when she walked in the house just in time to see the news station replay the footage of the second plane striking the tower. Even now, Lisa can’t really remember a time before the “War on Terror”, when fear and paranoia became normal.
In New York City, it was Valerie Nadal’s ninth birthday. Her birthday kept her mother from passing by the World Trade Center at the moment when the attacks started, but it nearly brought her father there, where he was supposed pick up a birthday present. Her father was four hours late getting home that night, but despite all the trauma of that day, they still went out to celebrate her birthday. Yet even 10 years later, it is still a struggle to reclaim the happiness of her birthday from the grief of that day.
This spring, I visited the World Trade Center memorial for the first time to see the place where it all began. The memorial is gorgeous, but sad. The scale of the attacks never struck me until I stood at the edge of the enormous pools that mark the footprints of where the towers stood and touched the panels which line the edge of the pools that are crowded with the names of the dead.
At the memorial I encountered even more Millennials who were there to reflect on that day and pay their respects to those who had died. Some were as young as 5 years old when the attacks happened, and yet even they have vivid memories of that day. And although it is a place of mourning, some are finding that it can be a place for healing, and an opportunity to move beyond the events that have defined our lives.
Rhett Spurlin exemplifies this mindset. When he thinks of September 11, he doesn’t think of the tragedy that defined his childhood but of how our country united together to respond to the attacks. Our response showed how supportive and incredible our country can be, and how quickly we can rebound from tragedy. To him, the memorial makes a huge statement that as a nation, we will continue to grow and rebuild together.
A year after Osama bin Laden’s death, the “War on Terror” isn’t close to being over, and his influence can still be seen and felt in the United States. But for our generation, his death brought a sense of closure to a decade of fear and endless war. The celebration, with all of its positives and negatives, was an emotional release, our Victory in Europe day, allowing us to feel that, finally, we can begin to turn the page on the event that defined most of our lives.
The world is moving on. The “War on Terror” continues without its standard-bearer. I’m still procrastinating studying for my finals. A new generation of children is growing up and learning about the September 11 attacks for the first time, now with the luxury of someone deciding when they are emotionally mature enough to watch the videos from that horrific day. And our generation continues onwards, still bearing the emotional scars from witnessing that day, but ready to move forward and make our own mark on the world.
Junior in SPA