Every generation has their “where were you when?” event that changed the course of their collective future and how they see the world. For Baby Boomers, I’ve been told it was the assassination of John F. Kennedy. For older Millennials, it was 9/11.
That morning, I found my parents and brother staring at our little 10-inch TV set in the kitchen. I must’ve asked what was going on about 50 times before someone explained to me that a plane hit the World Trade Center. I had endless more questions, but there were no answers.
I was kept home from school and watched TV in another room. Nearly every channel was dark or simply displayed pictures of candles or flags. Thirteen-year-old me gave up and put on the news.
I turned it on just in time to see a black shape come streaking into frame, crashing into the second tower. With much of the country and the world, I watched it all. Outside, fighter jets passed over our neighborhood.
In my journal entry that day, scrawled in Milky Pen, I wrote, “The towers are gone. It’s terrorists,” not really knowing what a terrorist was.
A couple days later, the airspace was still a dead zone. My chattering class of fellow 8th graders at Hoover Middle School fell silent during P.E. class when, as we sat on a basketball court for roll call, a hulking C-17 took off overhead. We knew where it must have been going.
The following days are often reflected upon as a time when the nation came together. And we did. But we were also a nation feeling a potent mixture of fear, vengefulness and patriotism. And we couldn’t have known it, but we were also on the precipice of great division. Perhaps we should have seen this coming when President Bush, in wise foresight, felt the need to visit the Islamic Center in Washington, D.C., and proclaim that Muslims were not our enemy.
On my block, nearly every home suddenly had a flag hanging on its porch. It was heartening to see. But soon after they were hung, someone spray-painted black marks on every single one of them.
Weeks later, one of my classmates, perhaps sheltered or still unable to comprehend, asked me, “Why can’t everyone just get over it already?”
We went into high school at a time of anthrax scares, fears of school shootings, and the cloud of a foreign concept hanging over our ’90s-era heads: war. Air travel went from being something fun to vastly unpleasant. It was hard to look at planes the same way.
By 2009, I was a senior in college preparing to go abroad for a short course in England. During a prep seminar, our professor informed us that we were luckier than prior groups who had taken the class. For years, he noted, students were advised not to wear any clothing identifying themselves as Americans.
There were strong feelings about the War On Terror abroad, and many were not good ones, he relayed. But apparently, the tide was turning. Obama was our president, and he played better overseas than our former cowboy in chief. That’s not quite how he phrased it, but I’m quite sure that is what he meant.
It seemed it had only taken eight years for the world to go from feeling boundless compassion for us to a lot of anger.
When we boarded the plane, the terror threat level was orange.
After having spent a few days in the birthplace of Shakespeare, we took a bus to London. Staring out the window as we passed through its outer suburbs, a bulletin board caught my eye.
Obama’s face was superimposed on Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s, who then was still in power in Iran. Next to their combined visage was the phrase, “Who poses the greater nuclear threat?” I wondered if my professor had been right about the way the world thought about America. No one else on the bus noticed.
I recently learned the bulletin board was part of an advertising campaign by Russia Today, a media outlet funded by the Russian government. Funny how things start to make sense in hindsight.
Shortly thereafter was the Arab Spring – an up swell against repressive regimes in the Middle East that had many feeling hopeful about that region, finally. But the resulting unrest and pushback from governments and militia, including the great humanitarian crisis that is the Syrian Civil War, put a rather sobering stopper in that hopefulness.
In the interim, ISIS has carried out more attacks than I could count offhand, including the 2015 massacre in Paris, which hit home for Long Beach with the loss of California State University, Long Beach student Nohemi Gonzalez.
Those of us Millennials who are now in our late 20s and early 30s were pre-teens and teenagers on 9/11, and grew up as our nation went to war – one we hoped would put a stop to terrorism. It is now our nation’s longest. We have grown up watching the war, fighting in the war, and protesting the war, and we are not quite sure to what end. Terrorism rages on.
My classmates and I were 13 when terrorists drove planes full of innocents into some of our nation’s most cherished buildings. We saw our president’s face turn ashen as this news was whispered in his ear while he read to even younger children. We watched people jumping out of the tallest structures in New York, and saw them collapse with many more inside. We saw the center of our national defense in flames. For Millennials, this was the Pearl Harbor of our formative years.
But we also saw a nation come together in one common purpose: to support one another. A human instinct most purely embodied in the individuals on United Flight 93, who drove their own plane into the ground to spare their fellow countrymen. That was a powerful thing to witness as adolescents.
This is not my typical column. I’m not going to throw a bunch of statistics at you to prove some kind of point about people in my age set. Instead, I hope you’ll see in this collection of experiences glimpses into our formative understanding of the world at large, and thereby perhaps better understand us, regardless of where we land on the proverbial “issues.”
My only real point is that I hope, as a generation, we live with the greater human purpose we learned on that day and in the days following, instead of clinging to fear and anger as we inherit leadership of our country.