Things we didn’t get
What does September 11, 2001, mean for our generation—for those of us currently around college age? How did we experience those events that in the minds of many mark a paradigmatic shift in national and world history? When we were 13 or 12 or 11 or 10 years of age, what did the most massive terrorist attack we have seen, upon the nation in which we lived, mean to us?
I am surprised at how little I had thought about these questions before they were brought up to me in a class, by Don DeLillo’s novel “Falling Man,” and by the photograph known by the same name. I know just where I was when the news was first communicated to me: walking down my middle school’s steps after the beginning of a school day for a dentist appointment, lightly singing “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” But I remember my reaction not because of the all-out shock the news caused in me, not because of an intimate understanding of the horror of the event that was taking place, but because those around me seemed to be affected by such shock, because some of the most self-possessed adults I knew seemed to be shaken in a way I had never seen them before.
It seems to me that ours is the first generation to have experienced 9/11 peripherally, secondarily, through the eyes of adults who knew its significance, without an understanding ourselves of the reasons why the day’s events were, for Americans, an unspeakable tragedy. Maybe I am just operating from my own experience. Maybe the kid who read every New York Times profile of the victims of the attack is more representative than I am. But for me, when I came back to school on the afternoon of September 11, and then again on September 12 and 13, the somberness that pervaded the hallways and the classrooms, the looks of despair on many students’ faces, resulted from the signals of our preoccupied history and English teachers rather than from a personal understanding of the event’s importance.
Thus, for all this time, I had wondered why, exactly, the attacks of September 11 were such a defining moment for the citizens of the United States who were, in 2001, older, more mature and had a better sense of the context of the event. I wondered, as a kid, hadn’t there been atrocities, genocides occurring? Didn’t thousands of people die every single day from HIV/AIDS? Weren’t there people right then, in the U.S., who could not afford food?
In a way, many of these concerns are valid. The tragedy of 9/11 was a tragedy in some part because it happened to a nation and a group of people to whom things like that were not expected to happen. It was the sudden contrast between total well-being in one moment and total suffering the next that made the event so horrific. In the innocence of being a kid, I dispassionately approached the day with an almost equally frightening radical relativism.
What I think I missed, and what those who had lived longer than me perceived, was the narrative dimension of the attacks’ aftermath, the insanity of what was occurring at Ground Zero, people filtering slowly down infinite staircases, people jumping from windows because of the heat. Buildings that were symbols of American commercial well-being, their very name capturing their centrality to our world, billowing smoke and then finally collapsing, with hundreds of people trapped inside.
What I missed, and what I think many of us might have missed in our confusion about events too fraught for our inexperience to understand, was the humanity of the thing, its sheer emotional effect. Many of us who are undergraduates now were too young to really get why the attacks were so gut-wrenching, too inexperienced with life and love to really be internally affected by them. For me, a turn to literature and articles composed about 9/11 and a photograph taken during its events allowed me to reevaluate them from a point of view now more informed and more emotionally in tune. For a generation in our late teens and early 20s, many of whom experienced the real shock of September 11 vicariously, a similar reevaluation—an effort toward understanding that day’s events from a more mature point of view—may be, by now, due.