September 11, 2011

Coming of age after 9/11/01

think. I was wearing a new purple and pink striped shirt, a birthday gift from one of my brothers, and sky blue insulated sweat pants as I sat impatiently waiting for my mom to finish getting ready for work and drive me to school. I was 13. It was a quarter to 8 and I was watching the Today show, just like every other morning. 

I watched the first plane hit the World Trade Center. Within a minute or two, Katie Couric got one of her friends on the phone who lived in Lower Manhattan to get an eye witness perspective of what was happening. Was it a small plane? Had the pilot had a heart attack? While the woman was on the phone, the second plane hit and I remember there being a few moments of horrifying recognition that this in fact was no accident, no grave error on behalf of the pilot or flight control, we were amidst something unfathomable and terrifying. 

A few days ago, I posted about how my generation doesn't know what real sacrifice is, for the most part. Today, I wholeheartedly rescind that statement. We have made sacrifices. No, they don't necessarily look the same as the WWII generation or the Great Depression, but our lives and perspectives changed that day whether we're conscious of it or not. And since the moment the first plane hit, 9,192 people have been killed, 2,977 on September 11 alone and 6,215 military personnel in the two wars that followed. In addition, 2,300 government contractors, 1,192 foreign coalition soldiers, and more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians died consequentially because of what happened on 9/11.**

Teachers didn't know what to do at school that day, many who had first period history or government classes started watching the news and didn't stop watching it for most of the day. Some teachers taught on, Mr. Lervick attempted a geometry lesson and Mr. Overbo pressed on with P.E. PhyEd was our first class of the day with the other section of 8th graders, and they had geography first period where they watched the plane crash into the Pentagon. 

As we were jogging laps, it's all we could talk about. Someone said that Osama bin Laden had been on the plane that hit the Pentagon, survived, and was currently engaging most of our nation's nuclear weapons. My friend could have said Satan was on the prowl and I would have been less scared. Bin Laden was a real-life villain to my adolescent self, someone that only a superhero could take out. A modern-day caveman with an AK-47,  hauntingly warm eyes and a sinister smile.

In the days following the attacks, there was talk of war, a draft, fuel and food shortages, and follow-up attacks. Things instantly changed living along the border, and suddenly helicopters and 3 a.m. patrols along gravel roads and trails became the norm. Customs agents at the border, many of whom were our neighbors, interviewed each vehicle coming into the US regardless if they knew the occupants personally.

The obvious changes our country has faced are being spelled out in the news today and are easily identified by each of us: strict security for airlines, borders, and government buildings. The omnipresent reminder that we're involved in two wars. The gaping holes left in the NYC skyline. 

But it's the other changes I'm more interested in, nuanced shifts in attitude and action that aren't as quantifiable. As a nation, we've become both isolationist and more open. Isolationist in the sense that we're not exactly welcoming to foreign travelers, the US visa process is one of the most difficult of any country in the world. As a nation, we've become unsure of anyone who looks sort of bin Laden-ish, we assume that Muslims are inherently extremists or "radicalized." We've created an "Axis of Evil" and tried our damndest to destroy it for the pursuit of liberty and democracy. Words such as "terrorist," "jihad," "suicide bomb," and "treat level," have become common in our rhetoric.

That's not our entire country, though. September 11 brought out a lot of amazing things in people. It was the event that helped my generation gain a sense of nation. My grandparents had both World Wars, my parents had JFK and the moon walkers, but my brothers and I had 9/11. Once the panic stopped and the events were better understood, we gained a sense of resolve to try make this place better than it was before the attacks.

Sure, there is the aforementioned paranoia, but the the positive effects are undeniable. Subconsciously, I think the 9/11 attacks played a huge role in my enthusiasm to explore the world. And I think the same sentiment goes for many of the friends I've made living abroad. I realized the best way I can personally contribute to our world is through understanding the perspective of people who come from dramatically different cultures than my own.  

The 9/11 attacks motivated others to join the military and embark on a war strategy that had never been tested out before. Sure, there were/are plenty of bombs and gun battles, but there is also a greater outreach to local culture and communities, soldiers trying  to gain a better understanding of the circumstances that prompt people to join groups like the Taliban or Al Qaeda.

Maybe this is a consequence of 9/11 (or maybe 20-somethings of every generation have been like this) but I'm surrounded by friends who demand social change and equality. Americorps volunteers helping abuse victims, Peace Corps volunteers working hard to build communities and schools in the far corners of the globe, healthcare workers demanding reform to give care to those who need it most regardless of income, I could go on... these are the people who don't just talk about change, they live change. And I think 9/11 is a subconscious motivator for us.

I didn't know anyone killed that day. Though I've had many friends serve in both wars, I don't personally know any soldier who has died in Iraq or Afghanistan. But that doesn't stop goosebumps from creeping down my arms when I read tragic stories or tears welling up in my eyes when I hear about a soldier coming home to his or her family. 

We live in a dynamic and sometimes scary world, but we have to embrace the lessons of September 11. We can't fear what's out of our control. And instead of looking those different from ourselves with skepticism, we ought to look with warm curiosity. Our world is different today than it was 10 years ago, but that doesn't have to mean it has changed for the worse.

**Source: The NY Times with credit to,,,  and US Dept. of Defense

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