For Younger Americans, 9/11 is Little More than a Cause for Cynicism

By: Micah Musser

September 11, 2019

Responding to: Reflecting on 9/11 Across Generations

For Younger Americans, 9/11 is Little More than a Cause for Cynicism

My older brother was born in 1995, and I was born two and a half years later in 1998. He is a Millennial, whereas I am part of Generation Z. He can remember 9/11; I cannot. Even most of my older peers can only report a vague recollection of where they were when they learned about the attacks. But I cannot conjure a single memory to mark the transition of our nation from the pre- to post-9/11 era.

The most significant impact of this absence is that for me, 9/11 refers not to an event, but to a cultural ethos. Those who lived through the attacks can make an easy conceptual distinction: they can separate the emotions experienced over the course of September 11, 2001 from the experience of its geopolitical ramifications. 

But this conceptual distinction is not accessible to those who have no memory of the event itself. In that case, a reflection on 9/11 is—and can only really be—a meditation on its consequences. So if I try to think about 9/11, my mind begins with the absurdity of having spent most of my conscious life living in a country that has spent over $5.9 trillion on and displaced over 21 million people in wars in the Middle East, wars that the public has supported (or at least tolerated) largely due to residual fear of an event of which I have no recollection. 

And politics continues to be shaped by this memory. It remains a powerful enough benchmark that after a slight uptick in terrorist attacks in 2015, a Gallup poll found that a higher number of Americans viewed terrorism as the greatest problem facing the country—greater than those viewing economic decline, governmental inefficiency, or gun violence as a principal threat. That reaction, based in the memory of fear, probably helped to elect Donald Trump in 2016. (And many Americans seem to gauge whether an event is a “terrorist attack” based on its resemblance to 9/11, which might help to explain why it is so difficult for many to conceive of white men who commit acts of mass violence—who do not match the profile of the 9/11 hijackers—as terrorists.) 

For those of us who do not really remember a pre-9/11 world, something feels a bit nonsensical in structuring the whole of global politics around the event, especially when the cost of doing so has been so great. The endless wars against “terrorism” abroad and the construction of a massive surveillance state at home resemble religious rituals carried out by believers trying to placate fearsome gods. For those who know the gods are real and dangerous, these rituals make perfect sense. But to those who have never acutely felt the fear of a divine threat, the rituals are baffling.

If this is at all an accurate characterization of my generation’s general psychological frame of reference, it is easy to see the source of the much-noted Millennial/Gen Z cynicism and irony. All important geopolitical decisions today are made by powerful individuals who are strongly guided by a fear of threats that we perceive as mostly hypothetical, even spectral. Our attempts to make sense of this seemingly irrational tendency can easily lead to conspiracy theorizing (“Bush did 9/11,” for example), or, more commonly, an ironic need to mock the government and those who created the world in which we live today. Or the two can be combined: one of my favorite conspiracy theories insists that birds are not real, since the government replaced them all with surveillance drones after 9/11. 

It often seems like a blessing that I have no memory of 9/11, since its legacy seems to be the source of enormously dysfunctional decision-making on a global scale. But at the same time, those of us who lack that memory are prone to an unhealthy need to detach from politics and to mock political leaders. And perhaps even worse, we can only understand 9/11 through its absurd consequences, making it very difficult to earnestly empathize with those who were victimized by the attacks. When asked to reflect on September 11, we seem only able to complain about what has happened to the world since. 

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