Roughly a year from now, I will have lived in a post-9/11 world longer than I ever lived in a pre-9/11 world.
Presumably this means nothing to you, but it sure scares the hell out of me.
Know what’s even scarier? Last month I attended the bar mitzvah—the Jewish coming-of-age—of a cousin for whom the memory of the September 11, 2001, attacks is no memory at all, because he was two months old at the time.
Worse still: Last week I shot hoops and played wiffle ball with another cousin, aged four and a half, who probably doesn’t yet know what “9/11” is, and when he does, it will present simply as one more event in history, much as Watergate and the Iran hostage crisis did for me.
To my fellow twentysomethings, I ask: Have we already reached that point where we talk to young people about September 11 the way our grandparents always talked to us about World War II? I can’t believe I’m saying this, but: Where does the time go?
While debate still rages, up until now my own definition of what it means to be a Millennial is that the formative global event of your life—albeit if only viewed on television—was the act of evil committed in New York and Arlington, Virginia, 13 years ago today. For me and pretty much everyone in my graduating class, it most certainly was, if only because nothing else was quite so interesting.
Yet here are members of my generation—contemporaries, as it were—for whom September 11 means nothing because they were born just a few years later than I.
Indeed, Richard Linklater’s seismic new movie Boyhood, which effectively bottles up the Millennial experience for all future generations to consider, begins sometime in 2002, with a protagonist just old enough to be aware of the attack but too young to understand what it means.
Even as the film progresses—it covers 12 years in all—the only allusions to 9/11 are indirect or after-the-fact, such as when a young soldier recounts his tours of duty in the Middle East or when the boy’s dad rants about how the Iraq War was one big scam.
But the event itself seems to have had no immediate effect on this family. It’s just something that happened far away at some point in the past. So far as the movie is concerned, the world prior to September 11, 2001, is not worth mentioning.
So perhaps I had everything all wrong: When the dust clears and the timelines are adjusted, maybe Millennials will be defined not as the generation on which 9/11 had the deepest impact, but as the first generation on which it had none at all.
In any case, it’s not like September 11 has grown any less important over time. Au contraire. With each passing year, it becomes ever clearer how the reality of so much of today’s world, good and bad, is a direct consequence of that horrible day, whether it should be or not.
To wit: With no 9/11, there would have been no Iraq War. With no Iraq War, there would have been no opportunity for a young, charismatic state senator from Illinois to oppose said war and rise to national prominence just in time for the anti-Bush backlash in 2008. And with no President Barack Obama…well, I leave you to fill in the blanks.
(This is to say nothing of the effects of the Iraq War on the Middle East itself, but in the interest of time, I’ll say nothing of them.)
Every big political event has a way of altering the assumed trajectory of history, but 9/11 is still the Big Kahuna of our time. It may not have “changed everything” right away, but 13 years out, we find there is very little about our lives that it did not change. Its shadow only grows.
So in a way, it almost doesn’t matter that an increasing proportion of the world’s population didn’t experience the attack in real time. For those born in the late-1990s onward, the post-9/11 world is the only world they know, and since it’s the only world we now occupy, there is little cause for alarm.
As someone who was already a teenager on the fateful day, and who saw the smoke billowing from Ground Zero from the top of a hill in my hometown in Westchester County, I guess I just didn’t expect this moment to come so quickly. I wasn’t prepared to treat my own personal memory of 9/11 as something precious—something that wasn’t also shared, in one way or another, by every other person on planet Earth.
For this emerging generation—Millennial 2.0, perhaps?—I don’t know whether to feel sorry or envious. On the one hand, today’s teens have never known the relative peace, quiet and civil liberties of the pre-9/11 era. On the other hand, they also do not know what it is like to lose them.