On the second week of fifth grade, my teacher asked us to write a five paragraph essay on how September 11th would change us personally, how it would change our nation, and how it would change the world. Instead of writing the essay, I sat in front of the computer until I cried.
The trouble was, I was barely 10 years old. I had no concept of what the world was like. September 11th didn't change the world for me — it defined it. And it was more terrifying than I could have ever imagined.
There is an entire sub-generation of people like me, who, in 2001, were right in that sweet spot of childhood where we had incredibly vivid memories of the day of the attack, but very little understanding of the actual loss or the greater impact it would have over time. We are all of us united by the sharp moments that never faded — watching our parents cry in front of the television. Watching our teachers abandon their lesson plans. Watching kids get pulled out of school, watching people scramble to get in touch with their friends in New York and DC, watching the planes strike the towers on the news over and over and over again. We were children. Watching was all we could do. We had no context, no ability to act, and no concept of the gravity of what had just happened.
I look back now and I understand that my teacher wanted us to write an essay that couldn't be written in 2001. Today's "young millennials" — the American kids who had barely been alive for a decade when it happened — largely had no real concept of death, let alone terrorism or the impending possibility of war. (I personally remember asking my friends over and over again why "tourists" attacked us, and even when my parents explained it to me, it took months for me to fully understand.) Until that point we had grown up in the Clinton era, a time that was defined by its prosperity and its relative peace and quiet; most of our parents only had vague memories of the Vietnam War. We grew up unscathed by tragedy. We grew up with this firm and unshakable belief that America was untouchable, and that even if bad things happened someplace else, we were safe here.
Of course, we didn't recognize that we were so sheltered at the time. I look back 14 years, on the other side of a war and on the countless impossible decisions that were made by a man we were too young to vote for or against, and I can plainly see the difference between where we started and where we are now.
The America we grew up in after that was distrustful, suspicious, and scared. Mindy Kaling wrote in her memoir about the strangeness of moving to a post-9/11 New York after college, and how jumpy and affected everyone was by it; for those of us who were so young when it happened, that is the only version of New York we remember. The whole country was, and remains to this day, on edge. Growing up, both of my parents worked in television news, and every week I heard about the color codes of airport security threat levels changing without explanation, or suspected terrorist attacks, or another setback in the Middle East. Our lingering paranoia is so intense that we still racially profile and unfairly stereotype people in airports, on the street, in crowded malls. We did not forgive and we did not forget, and our generation watched our parents and teachers and mentors all individually struggle with what exactly that meant to them. We looked to them to figure out what it meant ourselves, and I think that is why we are still grappling to find that meaning, separate from everything we felt and learned secondhand back then.
September 11 is woven so inextricably into the fabric of our lives that people my age barely remember a time before it. No day of the year will ever be as burned into our memories; there will never be a September 11 that goes by in our lifetime that we do not remember what happened on that day in 2001. It is the one tragedy in this nation that was so culturally pervasive that it leaked into all of our media, that it permanently altered our very habits and behaviors, that small children who have no memory of the event can tell our stories about it as if they are their own.
But every September 11 that passes feels different than the last. Maybe for some people the ache of it seems to fade over time, which is only natural human behavior — but for those of us who were so young when it happened, the tragedy of it only seems to heighten with every passing year. We knew the death count when we were children, but we could not fathom the personal loss of them. We saw the footage, but we couldn't process the unthinkable horror of it. But when you're 13, or 17, or even 24, it means something different. The understanding starts to sink in. The ripples of the tragedy are not just somebody else's ripples, but something you are a part of, and can empathize with, and can finally start to realize in its full horror.
We grew up in an America that was scared, an America that was shaken to its core, but we also grew up in an America that proved itself to be every bit as strong and unbreakable as it claimed. I was in Seattle when the attacks happened, as geographically disconnected as I could be. I live in New York now, and every morning I glimpse the giant monument that is the Freedom Tower — our enormous, defiant, 1,776-foot statement to the world that should we get knocked down, we will rise up higher than ever before. You can see it from almost anywhere in the city, and hear its message to the rest of the world: We came together. We persevered. We survived.
I was alone in my college apartment the night Osama bin Laden's death was announced in 2011. I heard what I thought was the pop-pop-pop of gunfire, and then saw the bright pink flare outside my window. Within our tiny complex and throughout the entire street, people were setting off fireworks — I opened the window and heard what sounded like all of our sleepy Virginia town screaming at the top of their lungs. I felt compelled to walk out into the street without knowing why, and so did everybody else. We talked to strangers. We patted each other on the back. We were manic and compulsive and too alive for our own good. By the end of the night everyone was various degrees of drunk or acting it, either disapproving of the shenanigans or joining in them — but no matter who you were or what you believed, you were there. The hurt and the fear was still so fresh in our hearts that we couldn't possibly feel these feelings, whatever they were, by ourselves. America leaked out into the streets that night, and I was surrounded on all sides by people who, 10 years before, had sat in the same classrooms, felt the same kind of helpless, and grown up in the same strange new world that followed. All this time, and we still didn't know what to make of it. All this time, and we are every bit as lost and confused as we were the day that it happened.
It's been almost 14 years since that fifth grade essay was due. But weirdly, sitting here in this grown-up body in my grown-up apartment a hundred worlds away from the kid I used to be, I feel the exact same way I did then: sitting in front of a computer screen, trying to make sense of the senseless, and knowing that nothing I do or say ever will.
Images: Getty Images; Matt Wade/Wikimedia