Impossible to Forget: Reflecting on 9/11 as a Marker of Life

By: Katherine Marshall

September 11, 2019

Reflecting on 9/11 Across Generations

The ways events unfolded on September 11, 2001 are engraved on my memory, as they are for countless Americans who lived through that horrible day. It was a sparkling fall morning, crisp air, bright blue sky, and life was “normal.” School routines were just getting into gear and long to-do lists drove plans for the day. But that normal life was interrupted first, by disquieting news about smoke pouring out from high up on one of the Twin Towers in New York. A radio announcer speculated that perhaps a small plane had crashed into the tower. But the second plane hitting the second tower was caught on film and transformed disquiet into calamity. And then the first tower collapsed, then the second. Sitting on an upper floor near my Washington, DC office, we had a view of the White House. We saw smoke and early (inaccurate) reports that the White House was hit. Rumors flew, each more frightening than the one before. We were sent home, only to meet hours of gridlock traffic. Cell phones, still fairly primitive, did not work. Were children okay? Was the world coming to an end? Hours later my household watched the stories unfold, glued to the television, keenly aware that what was happening shattered our sense of security and well-being.

Rarely, in other parts of the world, do people fully grasp the depth of the trauma of the events now known simply as 9/11. But it was for many Americans a life marker, a critical turning point. It was something that brought citizens together as a nation (a deeply positive sense in the aftermath) but also one that, looking back, contributed to deep divisions and anxieties. It was the horror of destruction: the pain and deaths, the vivid images that shocked us out of complacency. The intense curiosity about Islam that followed (many thousands ordered and tried to read the Quran) was part of an effort to understand the incomprehensible. Beefed up security, a focus on the “homeland,” and new fears for our children are among the many changes that have roots in the perceptions and interpretations of what happened that day.

For my generation there are a few such shared events. I can taste and feel the moment when news of President Kennedy’s assassination came to my school and also when I was told the outcome of the 2016 election as I landed in Zurich after an overnight flight. There are happier moments of memory also: the moon landing and even the first polio shots we received that promised protection against what was then a horrific risk. 

I find myself wondering what those pivotal moments are and will be for the students who are just embarking on their college life. Some demonstrations? Events that drive home the reality of climate change, like Hurricane Dorian?

I asked a German friend what stood out for her. The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 was her answer. It was a visible event captured in a moment in time that transformed a reality that had divided Europe and shaped the way that young generations perceived the world around them. In a single day, reality changed. For different societies there will be different moments, of joy and unity but also of pain and trauma. 

Cultures do change, though how and why is not always easy to trace. Ronald Inglehart in a recent book draws on successions of World Value Surveys to explore those questions. A conclusion, which he describes as a new insight, is that the openness of a culture to change and to diversity is linked to the experience of the decision-making generation as they grew up. Those whose basic security (against violence and hunger) is assured are, as adults, far more open to new ideas and diversity in their society than generations whose youth has been marked by insecurity.

Students today may experience the watershed events of September 11, 2001, as part of a distant past, as history taught in books and as the stories their elders tell. But they are, in many ways, living with the present legacies of that moment. Memorials and reflections, the call that we should “never forget,” are part of a continuing effort to heal the pain and, still more, to understand what happened and why. Reliving the memories with the light of today’s understandings is part of the call to learn from the past as we work for a better future. My question is whether this understanding can contribute to rebuilding a better sense of shared security that seems to be so sadly missing today, as we mark this sad anniversary.

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