Coming of Age in the 9/11 Era

By: Claudia Winkler

September 11, 2019

Reflecting on 9/11 Across Generations

“A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center!” a classmate shouted in the hallway between classes my sophomore year of high school. I was at my locker, swapping out books and binders for my next period, as I conjured up an image of a small biplane clipping a skyscraper. I don’t know that I actually knew what the World Trade Center looked like with its twin towers looming over the Manhattan skyline, and I certainly didn’t have any concept of international terrorism.

I should’ve been tipped off by the fact that we were asked to report to our homerooms that something quite serious was happening, but even as we sat and watched the first tower burn, then the second tower get struck and burn, and the buildings crumble, the magnitude of what was transpiring didn’t quite sink in. I was on the cusp of turning 16 and fairly aware of world affairs and politics, but I really just didn’t understand what exactly was going on.

When we got sent home and I found my dad home early from work and glued to the TV was when things became clear: This was a really big deal. All day and the next morning we watched as the death toll rose and the details of the perpetrators and their plot started coming to light.

To say that the world changed in that moment would be stating an obvious fact. To say that my world changed in that moment may be, in some ways, a less apparent outcome of 9/11. It was an inflection point—a moment of innocence lost, in a sense. Previously abstract “adult” concepts like war became tangible and personal, and with that came a disillusionment about just how unthoughtful and unmeasured the proverbial adults in the room could be in times of crisis.

Terrorism, for instance, was a concept with which I wasn’t very familiar, and to the extent that I was, my primary association was domestic terrorism: the crimes of Timothy McVeigh and Ted Kaczynski, for example. The idea of Islamic terrorism was foreign to me up to that point, yet from that moment forward in public discourse, terrorism seemed to be portrayed as exclusively perpetrated by Muslims—a legacy of 9/11 that remains today and an association that for me (and probably for many) is really hard to shake, despite the fact that I know better. I know to temper my implicit biases with reason, but observation tells me that many compatriots seem utterly incapable of escaping and overcoming these learned prejudices, choosing to remain willfully ignorant in the face of facts

What was most striking and shocking about the aftermath of 9/11 for me, however, was how this event seemed to bring out the worst in us (Americans) as a collective. There were uplifting moments of coming together as a united people and stunning acts of generosity and heroism in the moments and immediate aftermath of the attack, to be sure, but as the weeks and months of the new post-9/11 era unfolded, I observed a level of hatred and what felt like war fever that I’d never experienced before.

The feeling of helplessness and desperately needing to do something to respond to these horrific attacks was something I think everyone felt, most viscerally those in New York and Washington, DC, who were quite literally terrorized, not to mention the families of those who perished in the attacks. But that urge to respond in kind led many to flagrantly disregard the humanity of innocent civilians who would be on the receiving end of the wars we waged. I remember listening with shock and horror as a beloved teacher said something to the effect of “just bomb them all”—“them” being any Muslim in the Middle East. I also remember voicing to another teacher my concern about invading Iraq and the tenuous evidence of any weapons of mass destruction, much less any direct connection to 9/11, and being talked to as though I were a child who simply didn’t understand and didn’t have any place to comment. One could chalk these incidents up to a few isolated examples, but over 70% of the American public supported the invasion of Iraq when it happened with little regard for the justifications or the possible consequences, it seemed.

With hindsight, one could argue that history was on my side. “Mistakes were made,” one might say, and our involvement in Iraq spiraled into a huge quagmire, the consequences of which we are still dealing with today. But being “right” is of little consolation. The ugly aftermath of 9/11—from the anti-Muslim imagery and sentiments that still loom large in our society today to the eagerly entered wars that have led to mass destruction and little actual retribution—forever tarnished America for me in a way that I’m not sure is redeemable. The patriotism fueled by fear that I observed and the subsequent inability of the adults in the room to think soberly and act wisely and humanely is something that sits with me and unnerves me, particularly in our current political moment, when tensions are running high and animosity toward historical allies, immigrants in our country, and even fellow Americans feels extraordinarily acute.

I hate to count myself among the disillusioned younger generations, but 9/11 gave me a glimpse into what my fellow countrymen are capable of in moments of crisis, and what I saw was frightening.

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